Husbands and their wives' lovers have never hit it off as well as they do in Before We Fall In Love Again, a strange and tightly controlled Malaysian romantic drama. Granted, it would have gained much by being shot on film, but even in its digital form it confirms the talent of film-maker James Lee ( The Beautiful Washing Machine): possibly he should consider being more ambitious in his production techniques for his next feature.
Shot in black-and-white, this story of a recently married man whose wife mysteriously disappears, and whose lover appears from nowhere to help look for her, may be too rigorous and low-key for wider arthouse audiences. That said, it could find favour among devotees of film from the region and enjoy extensive exposure at festivals. After Pusan it plays Tokyo later this month.
Six months after her wedding, Ling Yue (Amy Len), leaves one morning and vanishes into thin air, not even taking her toothbrush with her or leaving a note for husband Chang (Pete Teo).
A few days later, after bein g offered compassionate leave at work, Chang meets a stranger, Tong (Chee Keong Chye), who introduces himself as Ling Yue's lover, and pretends to be as worried and as mystified as he is about her disappearance.
As the two of them have a cup of coffee together in the most civilized manner possible under the circumstances, Ling Yue's past emerges through a series of sober, precise flashbacks; first through her relationship with Tong, once her boss at work, then later with Chang, who she married.
Lee establishes her as the focal po int of the story, revealing her as a determined person who takes the initiative whenever she wants something. She is a free spirit for who open relationships are not an abstract notion and who, even in moments of passionate abandon, holds something back for herself.
As more details are added in this cool, unsentimental rendition of the past, so a growing physical and emotional resemblance emerges bet ween the two men, extending into their careers and social status. The only seeming explanation as to why Ling Yue would marry the second of them, while keeping in contact with the first, is that the latter already has a wife and family.
Or is it? One could also guess that if L ing Yue does leave them both, then it is because she is looking for something quite different, as hinted by her express wish to visit Prague, a plan acknowledged but never fulfilled by either one of the men. But there is no real evidence to support this, for the more we learn about these relationships in her life, the more of a mystery she remains. There is also the question as to whether she has had secret relationships with other men.
Despite the circumstances, neither of the men raises his voice until a late, out-of-character episode in which the pair accidentally witness a violent underworld settling of accounts in a parking lot.
A noticeably ironic under-current runs throughout, as when Chang proposes to Ling Yue with a loud chorus of frogs croaking accompaniment in the background. Only an unnecessary epilogue feels out of place.
Amy Len convincingly lends her character a frankness that never opens up into anything more intimate; the difference bet ween "liking" someone and "loving" them, often discussed, seems pointless in her eyes.
The two male protagonists are both supposed to be similarly average, non-descript bureaucrats (even the glasses they wear look alike), who are equally bemused by what has been be fallen them – but it means that Peter Teo and Chee Keon-chye have to stay within the boundaries of middle-class mediocrity.
Lee's rigorous yet relaxed style and unobtrusive but careful way of plac ing the camera is quite exemplary and never pries into his characters' privacy beyond a certain limit (there are no sex scenes).
The most serious problem he encounters, possibly because of his production process, is the quality of the images themselves. Shot on Digi-Beta, Before We Fall In Love Again looks undeservedly flat and unimpressive, lacking the beauty that black-and-white at its best can possess - for shame given the efforts invested in the production elsewhere.
Dan Fa inaru in Busan 18 Oct 2006 00:00