To a certain extent, the films Tsai Ming-Liang are all of a piece; if you really love one of them (and there are few contemporary directors who are more of an acquired taste than Tsai Ming-Liang; his movies are famous for extraordinarily lengthy takes, often from a static camera, and if you don't have a bottomless well of patience for slow-moving films, it is likely that he's the most boring filmmaker you'll ever stumble across), it's rather likely you're going to love all of them, although not necessarily every one to the same degree (my untested feeling is that most people would agree as to which of his films are strongest, and which are weakest, broadly speaking). Being as I am a dedicated Tsai fanboy, I expected to enjoy his ninth feature Face, made in France at the invitation of the Musée de Louvre; and that is just exactly what I did. Sadly, I did not altogether love it, and I can imagine most faithful followers of the director not altogether loving it for the same reason as myself: the film plays a great deal like "Tsai's Greatest Hits", with a great many of the images scattered across its two hours and 20 minutes bearing a remarkable similarity to moments found here and there throughout the rest of his filmography. On the one hand, this makes it a pretty effective primer for his work, but to those of use who know and love his movies, it has a pervasive sense of the familiar - not a word you could typically use to describe any of his work - and is not at all as revelatory or exciting. It's a fine movie, if you like this sort of thing (most people don't, to an almost violent degree), but for me, there's no real fear of What Time Is It There?, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, or I Don't Want to Sleep Alone dropping a level in my personal ranking of Tsai's work.

Now, talking about the "story" in this man's movies makes no sense, but the "story" of Face is approximately this: Hsiao-Kang, whose name appears in all of Tsai's films, always played by Lee Kang-Sheng, without any real indication that it's meant to be the same character (and no indication that it's not), is directing a movie in France, an adaptation of the Salome myth. It is a doomed production, starring a rather easily distracted and damaged actor named Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as Herod and a banal young lady (Letitia Casta) as Salome, the producer (Fanny Ardant) can't do much of anything to get people all in one place, Hsiao-Kang speaks not a word of French and doesn't appear to understand much of French culture, and his mother (Lu Yi-Ching) is getting very sick - indeed, she dies, and that's not really any kind of spoiler.

It is a curious feature of this film that what plot does, in fact, occur, almost always happens off-screen, and we're mostly not told about it; we have to figure out what went on in between scenes by referring to visual cues and latching onto specific words in conversation. I am reminded of that old chestnut that animation is what happens in between frames; several times during Face I found myself thinking that this film takes place in between scenes.

Insofar as a Tsai Ming-Liang film has a particular message or theme - and every one of them does - it's drawn up out of the fabric of the movie rather than communicated by character actions or dialogue. Face takes as its theme the French New Wave, which doesn't sound like a "theme" per se, but I can't think of any other way to put it. But consider: Fanny Ardant and Jean-Pierre Léaud, two of François Truffaut's most important actors, appearing on-screen together for the first time. Ardant gets one scene in which she studies the Viktor Skrebneski photograph of Truffaut, and we are not at all certain if it is the character or the actress that we are watching; Léaud plays a character named for his most iconic role, Antoine Doinel of The 400 Blows and its sequels. The plot of the movie echoes, if only loosely, Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt. There are other references, some of them obvious and some that are more felt than known for certain. Though Tsai's aesthetic could hardly be further from the New Wave filmmakers, he has plainly spent no small amount of time thinking of those movies and their place in history, and Face is his tribute to them.

At the same time, it is the latest in the long run of his movies, which all have a weird tendency to build one on top of the other; imagery gets repeated from one film to another, although rarely is that repetition quite as explicit as it is in Face, which lifts certain ideas straight from several of his movies; The Hole and The Wayward Cloud (coincidentally or not, two of my least favorite Tsai films) are the ones that I noticed the most strongly, although there's not a single one of his nine preceding films that doesn't get a shout-out somewhere in Face. As I said before, this has the effect, somewhat, of making the movie seem less interesting than it ought to be: there's not as much evolution on display here, and for the first time I had the sense, at moments, that he was "doing a Tsai Ming-Liang" rather than making a movie exactly the way he wanted to because that is how it had to be made.

Without doubt, there are some tremendously fine images here and there: the opening shot in a café followed immediately by what feels like ten minute of Hsiao-Kang trying to deal with a burst kitchen pipe is as strong an opening as any of the director's films have boasted; there are a couple wonderful moments in a fake snowy forest with several mirrors set about for no real reason; and late in the film, Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils is dramatised in an unforgettable scene that makes brilliant use of sound and indulges Tsai's long-standing fascination with the physical, squishy, un-sexy part of sex in a most disturbing manner. And even when he's copying himself, he's really just copying from the best. But I really do wish there was a bit more... just more.

But it's still a Tsai Ming-Liang film, and not at all the worst, and if you know that it appeals to you, then Face is something you're probably already waiting for. If you haven't seen any of his films, there are worse places to begin: it's one of his easier films, although "easy" is such a silly word to use here. You don't really watch Tsai's films, it's more like you dream them with your eyes open. They take patience and at times a strong stomach, but they're really not like anything else in cinema. And Face continues on nobly and proudly in that rarefied strain of idiosyncrasy.