The Face of Another ★★★★

The plot sounds like quintessential B movie material: Mr. Okuyama, a man whose face is disfigured in a terrible accident, is wrapped in bandages until he can have another man's face captured in latex and grafted onto his own. It then begins to alter his personality and dictate his actions. For a modern audience, this inevitably brings to mind John Woo's brilliant face-splicing actioner Face/Off but Hiroshi Teshigahara's treatment of the story (adapted by Kôbô Abe from his own novel) couldn't be more different.

Instead of shocks and thrills, Teshigahara crafts a slow burn allegory of a struggle with personal and social identity, examining the way in which the face isn't just flesh-as-window-dressing but a vital interface between a person's inner life and the outside world. Conversely, it's a mask to hide behind - not just in the case of Mr. Okuyama, but for everyone. There's a brilliant scene where this idea is made explicit - Mr. Okuyama and the psychiatrist are swamped by a stream of faceless people - a seething mass of humanity, all hidden behind the masks of their own faces, every bit as much as Okuyama is hidden behind his. The mask actually begins to change his personality, slowly but surely, building to a quietly devastating climax, where he seduces his own wife wearing the mask that he thinks she won't see past; a heartbreaking testament to his lack of faith in her.

It raises the question of how much of our self-identity comes from within and how much is located in the way we see ourselves reflected back in the mirror and in the eyes of others - not consciously, but as a gradual internalization of others' reactions to us throughout a lifetime. Where does the collective end and the individual begin? Or are they inextricably linked in an infinite feedback loop? One man's psychic rebirth also reflects that of a nation's. After WW2 and in the wake of life-altering devastation, Japan was exploring its self-identity on a new world stage through its evolving culture.

Being a poster boy of the Japanese New Wave, Teshigahara's film is naturally very experimental, with unusual composition, framing and editing techniques complimented by Tôru Takemitsu's discordant avant-garde score. Many of the sets - particularly the psychiatrist's surgery, which is minimal in the extreme, with just the odd glass case starkly lit against a jet black background - are surreal, and incredibly striking. You could easily enjoy this film on a purely aesthetic level.

I imagine the pacing is what might put a lot of people off; Teshigahara is in no hurry to get where he's going and especially in the first half hour or so, it's glacial - some might even say sterile or dull. For me though, it begins to have a hypnotic effect, which just intensifies as the film goes on. I think I still prefer his earlier Woman of the Dunes, but The Face of Another has the same spellbinding quality. It's hard to put your finger on. It works a strange kind of magic - or did on me at least; I was transfixed by the end.

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