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Faces are immensely important. First impressions are said to be formed based on a person’s looks, although it is also said that it takes 5 minutes or less to get an impression of how the person’s inner-self might be. But, still are we not fascinated by our face and the identity it brings out? Don’t we remember our face in freeze-frames, while conversing with a friend, showcasing genuine emotions? If we ask a facial surgeon on ‘whether the people’s identity change by altering their face?’ He/she would answer ‘no’. That the purpose of surgery is to allow a person to get a face which best reflects their personality. May be that purpose isn’t always accomplished: some end up unhappier; for some a new face offers force of good, hope. With a promising future of stem cells and facial transplantation, we don’t know what kind of magical offering this young field would imbue on our society. But, we do know how movies have dealt with the themes of facial reconstruction or corrective surgery.

Facial disfigurement is one of the important themes dealt in cinema as earlier as in the German Expressionist era (“The Man Who Laughs”, 1928). While films like “Elephant Man” (1980) or the brief sequence in “Under the Skin” (2013) challenged our entrenched view on disfigurement, movies in general have always seen villainy in facial disfigurement; as a ploy to lay a path of vengeance. Phantom, Darth Vader, Freddy Kreuger, Joker, Leather-face, Quasimodo, etc have become a symbol of monstrosity on-screen, while in our real world there are thousands of facially different people doing astounding things. The aim of the list I have prepared is not to ponder over the insipid metaphor of a scarred face, but to identify movies that deal with the inner-emotional as well as external turbulence that accompany with a ‘new’ face. These movies are about men & women with changing/changed face, who haven’t reached a point of self acceptance.

Honorable mention:

Face/Off (1997)

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As Roger Ebert called it, Face/Off is “inconceivably implausible”. John Woo’s well-shot and repetitively violent face transplantation movie isn’t watched for its psychological insights. The alternate heroism and villainy of John Travolta & Nicolas Cage plus the overblown action stakes hails from the typical Hollywood territory, although it absolutely works as a full-blooded action genre piece.

10. A Woman’s Face [1941]

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George Cukor’s old-fashioned thriller and melodramatic character study follows a bitter, scarred woman Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) seeking spiritual transformation after a plastic surgery. Demented antagonist, abducted child and few other pretentious narrative elements stand in the way to sensitively explore the embittered emotions of the central character. But, Crawford’s offers one of her best performances without being imbibed by her customary glamour turn. Director Cukor finely draws a tense situation among all the ridiculousness nature. The film of course uses the age-old Hollywood idea that a disfigured face leads to emotional deformity, while a little facial surgery would bring up a pure heart.

9. Dark Passage [1947]

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In Delmar Daves’ cool, noir film Humphrey Bogart’s wronged protagonist Vincent Parry has an implausible back-alley face-lift. Vincent does that act after escaping from the prison, where he was confined for killing his wife. Obviously, Vincent is a good guy and with the help of a beauteous young woman (Lauren Bacall), he tries to clear up his name.  Despite the sketchy characterizations, “Dark Passage” works because of the making and a well-rounded supporting cast. The first half-hour of the film uses the first person pov, which was actually absorbing rather than being a gimmick. Unlike many other film noir and facial surgery, the protagonist’s problems in the narrative come from external subjects; not due to character flaws.

8.The Skin I Live In [2011]

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Graceful provocateur Mr. Pedro Almodovar’s mix of melodrama and mystery takes place (for the most part) in an isolated mansion, owned by renowned facial transplant surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). His obsessive work nature has indirectly resulted in the death of his wife in an accident. Now, he takes up a new obsession –a beautiful, young woman Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) is locked up in upstairs bedroom, cloaked in flesh-colored body stocking. The twisted sexuality, the painful coincidences, and the near-parody treatment of mystery are all the familiar Almodovar touches. There are narrative deficiencies in the film, which to an extent is masked by the exploration of the conflict between our inner self and the face & body, which serves as the abode.

7. Goodnight Mommy [2015]

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Austrian film-makers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s disturbing psychological horror depicts the degrading bond between bandage-wrapped mother and her 10 year old twin boys, Lukas and Elias. As a gruesome genre picture, “Goodnight Mommy” works since it includes the double scary propositions: an unloving mother and an evil kid. The reconstructive plastic surgery of the mother (who had met up with an accident) makes the boys think whether she is their mom or some impostor ‘mummy’. The boys playing ‘who-am-I’ game with mom is one of the film’s riveting sequences (and let’s not forget that torture scene). Nevertheless, despite all the uncertainty and tensed atmosphere, I felt it could have developed the central characters a bit more to convey a rich, psychological profundity.

6. Shi gan aka Time [2006]

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South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk’s fraught love story explores how people yearning for change seek it in a new face than looking for a spiritual makeover. Young woman Seh-hee, who is insecure about her looks & body, is on the verge of nervous collapse. In one of her love-making session with boyfriend (of 2 years), she apologizes for having boring features. One day she disappears worrying her boyfriend. Seh-hee eventually returns with a new name and a new face. As in all of Kim’s movies, “Time” works as an existential tragedy and as an examination of our identity crisis. It becomes a profound experience when we identify the film’s central questions: what happens when our love decays in the passage of time, where nothing lasts forever? And how can these quick, consumer-culture surgeries bring about an extreme transformation to our lives?  

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