Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This odd Japanese film is technically a crime picture but comes off as more of an eccentric, insightful women's film. A dowdy recluse becomes a fugitive from the law, an experience that ironically opens up her life to experiences she'd never have known otherwise. The key to the picture is its leading lady Naomi Fujiyama's entirely self-effacing performance. Known as one of Japan's top stage actors, Fujiyama holds our attention with her clumsy attempts to fit into the world while on the run from a murder charge.
Sullen and withdrawn 'ugly' elder sister Masako toils endlessly with mending chores in her widowed mother's dry cleaning shop, seething with hatred for her flashy younger sister Yukari, who visits only for free laundry services. When mother dies and Yukari persists in her abuse, Masako cracks up and strangles her. She flees and takes up a number of identities and odd jobs, meeting people as she goes. To her surprise Masako finds people in general to be kind and helpful (although she's sexually abused more than once) and she blossoms as a personality, even to the extent of becoming a popular bar hostess like her murdered sister.
On the surface Face is a rather benign version of old films noir about desperate and guilty fugitives, such as Fritz Lang's fate-obsessed Scarlet Street. For Masako, being a wanted murderess has its torments, as she tries to kill herself at least once and is frequently miserable. But she was always miserable before, and being forced out on her own puts her into the flow of life.
Isamu Uno's original story becomes a curiously humane script in the hands of Junji Sakamoto. A desperate Masako tries to turn herself in but is instead raped by an unemployed trucker. Ironically, that's just what Masako's dead sister cruelly prescribed for her bad attitude, and Masako finds herself stimulated by the experience. She finds employment (or, more accurately, jobs find her) in the depressed corners of cities. She's a maid in a 'joy hotel' until police attention puts her back in flight mode. Her prospects bloom when she takes a position helping out in a neighborhood bar owned by a lonely woman and her discouraged ex-Yakuza brother. After behaving like a slug for so many years, Masako becomes a cheerful barmaid, banging a tambourine completely out of rhythm during Karaoke sessions. "So what?" she chirps happily, "No one cares."
Masako essentially gets a life, learning to ride a bicycle like a normal person and in some ways taking the place of her murdered sister -- who returns occasionally in guilty memories. Nothing's perfect, as Masako briefly finds herself sold to a lovesick married bar patron. Sordid realities don't deter her essential spirit, however, and at one point she states that she likes people with problems. She even falls in love with a young man (recently downsized, as are most of the men she meets) and enjoys the experience of feeling radiant and beautiful.
Alas, even though she has a good instinct for when to move on, the Television publicity around her case finally closes in. Always moving southward away from her crime, she eventually takes a ferry to a tiny island and gets a start on another life caring for an old woman. When Masako's face shows up on the news, the friendly police that have been so grateful for her mending skills start a dragnet, and on such a small island there's really no place to hide.
Director Junji Sakamoto gives us a vivid portrait of the edges of modern Japan without imposing a fatalistic tone or a cynical viewpoint; with a few exceptions Masako finds that a plain girl wandering in lonely streets will not be without friends. But her twisted predicament is rich in irony. Once she was an embittered malcontent refusing human contact, but in her flight she forms more than a few meaningful relationships. The lady who runs the bar truly considers her a sister, and the jobless man she loves is sufficiently moved by Masako to forget his vendetta against the company that fired him. In the place of show-off stylistics, the picture is packed with interesting little details that only later take on meaning, like the fun-fair "duck race" attraction that seems a metaphor for the mainstream rat-race that Sakamoto's unemployeds have avoided.
Image Entertainment distributes Home Vision Entertainment discs now, but the company's commitment to quality has not changed. Face (sometimes known as Kao) is presented in a flawless enhanced transfer with excellent color. The rich audio track is in Dolby 5.1. The one extra is a trailer, and critic Chuck Stephens' factually informed liner notes offer a number of analytical insights, especially regarding Masako's stubbornly affirmative approach to life.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Face (Kao) rates:
Supplements: Trailer, Liner notes by Chuck Stephens
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 29, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson