Malaysian director James Lee is a sublime chronicler of despair. He discovers something hypnotically fascinating in an emotion that most filmmakers prefer simply to wring pathos from. The deep loneliness of his characters is both their undoing and their redeeming quality.
The latest feature, BEFORE WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN (2006), contains one of his most resonant images of the male adrift - the sight of one of the protagonists (Chye Chee Keong) wandering through a corridor lined with enormous white wedding dresses. He's literally outnumbered and overpowered by these costumes and all that they signify.
Shot in stark black and white, BEFORE WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN, is essentially a love story (or unlikely partnership) between two men, played out through their shared memories and dreams of a woman (Amy Len again, who for Lee specializes in playing sweetly innocent-looking females who wield extraordinary erotic power over men), she is the wife of one, and the mistress of the other, but has been missing for a month. She may have gone to Prague, and the film threatens to follow her there. Instead, after extended reminiscences about their respective relationships with her, the men go on a road-journey (as desolate as any early Wim Wenders) to find a third man, the first love of her life, who is, inevitably, a gangster. It's a journey of deadpan discovery, and if there is a final revelation for each of the men, Lee leaves us to guess what it might be.
The pace is measured, tightly controlled, and the camera rarely moves. The acting is typically minimal. Dialogue comes slowly, as if everyone is very carefully choosing their words. Small talk is as weighed down with other meanings and motivations as discussions of love. The men look different (Musican/actor Pete Teowho plays the lover, Tong, has a face that can contain a lifetime of undisclosed sorrow), but they are often interchangeable. As some of their flashbacks with the woman begin, we are momentarily not sure whose version we are watching. Indeed, Lee designs his script around such intricate doublings and repetitions. It's a bleak film noir reduced to unfathomable mysteries. Is the unlikely femme fatale being hallucinated by her jilted "investigators"? Or are they the divided variations of one imagined lover?
But it's not all so gloomy. Black comedy emerges in the extraneous details - a hotel tryst interrupted by the obsequious manager's complimentary bottle of wine, a soliloquy by a Japanese-speaking gangster, and in a very self-referential moment, a top-loading washing machine which proves as captivating as the "great whatsit" in Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY. These interventions add to the already dream-like texture of the nocturnal world that Lee creates.
The story gradually unfolds in airless interiors and empty nights-capes. The city beyond each scene is barely glimpsed, so there is no real sense of place, even though ironically, the story turns on two geographical displacements – to Prague (Europe as an escape into foreign-ness, a reverse exoticism of the West) and to Singapore, a neighboring country, which eventually provides some form of refuge or relief.
This interior dreaming of other places is reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (which also features a brief sojourn to Singapore). It could be argued that BEFORE WE FALL is Lee's reworking of IN THE MOOD, adjusting the story so that it is about the encounter between the cuckold and the cuckolded rather than the two betrayed lovers. With the woman absent, both men have been left abandoned and are seeking some kind of resolution to their disappointments. Each film trades in the unspoken exchange between lovers, and the inability to come to terms with loss.
However, Lee eschews Wong's sultry nostalgia and seductive surfaces. There is no pop music in BEFORE WE FALL, in fact there is scant music at all, the film refuses to provide such clear-cut pleasures. There are several kisses in the film, which are hungry and passionate, but they are not "screen kisses", they don't provide that type of satisfaction. Rather they are private, intimate moments held and extended, so that we are acutely aware of the awkwardness of our voyeurism.
BEFORE WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN is another haunting song for that late-night jukebox. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Ben Slater is a writer about film. His book, KINDA HOT, THE MAKING OF SAINT JACK IN SINGAPORE, is published by Marshall Cavendish. This article is extracted from a longer work written exclusively for WOA Smorgasblog, entitled LOVE SONGS: THE FILMS OF JAMES LEE