Friday, December 7, 2007

She's Not There

Before We Fall In Love Again (Nian ni ru xi). 2006. Written and directed by James Lee. Produced by Tan Chui Mui and Lorna Tee. Executive produced by Amir Muhammad, Nyu Ka Jin, Ho Yuhang, and Yasmin Ahmad. Cinematography by Teoh Gay Hian. Edited by Jimmy L. Ishmael. Art direction by Eleanor Low. Music by Ronnie Khoo.

Cast: Amy Len (Ling Yue), Pete Teo (Tong), Chye Chee Keong (Chang), Cheong Wai Loon (Chong Siew Fai), Koo Chi Kien (Travel Agent/Hotel Manager/Motel Manager), Patrick Teoh (Mr. Wong), Seiya Shimada (Japanese Gangster), Berg Lee (Dyed-Blonde Hair Gangster), Jackie Lim Hiu Hoon (Woman On the Run).

The title of this film from Malaysian filmmaker James Lee could easily serve as that of a grand romantic epic, or perhaps one of the Korean television dramas extolled in one scene by a travel agent as a reason for the popularity of Korea travel packages. At once melancholic and hilarious, devastatingly precise and dreamily surreal, Before We Fall In Love Again is an exhilaratingly inventive confirmation of this director’s talents, and by extension, the extraordinary fecundity of talent in current Malaysian cinema. (The producer credits are a virtual roll call of the Malaysian new wave: Amir Muhammad, Yasmin Ahmad, Tan Chui Mui, Ho Yuhang.) The film seems to reinvent itself with each scene, indeed, almost with each shot, as layers of the characters’ histories are peeled away in a continually surprising fashion.

The film’s premise is familiar enough to be almost cliché. Chang (Chye Chee Keong), a seemingly colorless office drone, depressed over the disappearance of his wife Ling Yue (Amy Len) one month earlier, is told by his boss to take a vacation, his moping around apparently trying the patience of his coworkers. “It would be best for all of us,” Chang’s boss says. He goes to a travel agency, greeted by cheerful staff with plastic smiles, who are introduced to us with a priceless sight gag in which the travel agents stand in perfect harmony with cardboard cutouts. This begins a very funny running motif involving service workers’ interactions with the film’s characters. Chang insists on going to Prague (the significance of this locale is revealed later), despite being told that there is a dangerous civil war occurring there. Afterward, he runs into a stranger, Tong (Pete Teo), who is also looking for Ling Yue. Chang invites him to his apartment for coffee (“Would you like some coffee?” is invariably his initial query to people he invites to his home), and finds out that his missing wife had been having a long-term affair with Tong, who had known Ling Yue before she met Chang. For most of the film they sit across from each other drinking coffee, relating their experiences with this woman, who we see in flashback scenes with both men.

And it is these flashbacks that are the heart of the movie, and Lee is so deft at weaving them into the present story that it is stunning to watch. Lee often cuts directly to a flashback scene as a character walks into another room, a beautiful expression of how this missing woman haunts both men and how she is now even more present by her absence. And it is Ling Yue, this impenetrable enigma, who is the true center of this story. Ling Yue is always impossible to read, flitting back and forth between the two men effortlessly. They can have her body and her affection temporarily, but there is an inner essence to her that will forever remain unreachable. She is not the sort of conventional stunning beauty who would normally be the center of such an intense focus; in fact she is rather plain looking. But her mysterious nature gives her an allure and attractiveness that is magnetizing for both men. She serves as a tabula rasa upon which Chang and Tong can inscribe their fantasies and hopes; in one scene, Ling Yue and Chang are in a car, and as they look into each other’s eyes, they both say to each other, “I see myself.” Ling Yue in one scene casually tells Tong that she is going out on a date with another man, and when Tong protests, says in the most deadpan tone, “But I still love you.” Just as casually, Ling Yue reconnects with Tong shortly after she marries Chang. In each interaction with her men, there is always a sense that Ling Yue is not quite there, and has already begun disappearing even before she is gone. At a certain point in the film, one wonders if we can believe anything we see. Is this woman even real? Or is she a mutual hallucination, a nonexistent creature similar to the main female character (also played by Amy Len) in an earlier film by Lee, The Beautiful Washing Machine? In fact, there is a direct reference to that film in a brief scene in which Chang and Ling Yue shop for a washing machine after they marry. Buttressing the idea of this ambiguity about Ling Yue’s existence is the surprising lack of rancor between the two men. Even after learning that his wife had been cheating on him almost throughout their entire relationship, Chang retains a disturbing equanimity.

Lee’s film, shot on black-and-white digital video, is beautifully composed and his style is surprisingly fluid, for a film which mostly consists of soulless, anonymous spaces – hotel rooms, offices, featureless cafes – with very little musical accompaniment. These environments perfectly mirror his two male characters, rather nondescript men, whose only distinguishing traits are their memories of their mutual missing lover. Lee imbues his scenario with a marvelous deadpan humor that reminded me of Jim Jarmusch. Even minor characters – a hotel manager who presents Tong with a bottle of wine for being a “regular customer,” an apologetic Japanese gangster, a woman hiding out from her angry boyfriend – leave a great impression, conjuring an absurdist universe. The film’s visual scheme dramatically changes late in the film, and when this happens, it is quite a startling moment. Adding to the richness of the film is Lee’s willingness to leave very significant details ambiguous, obscure, and unrevealed, lending the film intriguing layers of meaning, making it an open-ended work that rewards multiple viewings. Before We Fall In Love Again is the first installment of Lee’s “Love Trilogy,” exploring themes of unfaithfulness in relationships, inspired by Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The film won Best Asean Feature at this year’s Bangkok International Film Festival. The second film of the trilogy, Things We Do When We Fall in Love, screened this year at the Singapore International Film Festival, the Deauville Asian Film Festival, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

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