Two very varied feature films opened recently, the first two parts of a planned trilogy on love by acclaimed indie filmmaker James Lee. James has had a productive career, to date, and critical analysis of his work has often focused on stylistic comparisons with Taiwanese New Wave stalwarts like Tsai Ming-Liang (who, incidentally, also has a feature opening in Malaysia). Those assessments are perhaps a little too easy, and ignore the emerging auteur nature of James's work; with "Before We Fall In Love Again", the first of his new films, James shows a sense of style that is his own.
Produced with assistance from the Rotterdam International Film Festival's Hubert Bals Fund, "Before We Fall In Love Again" has, in its list of Producers and Executive Producers, a veritable roll-call of local indie film talent: Tan Chui Mui, Lorna Tee, Amir Muhammad, Ho Yuhang, Yasmin Ahmad.
In this intriguing love story, James has stretched his already strong sense of screen composition in a largely icy, black and white (and all the shades of luscious grey in between) world where mise en scene fuses effortlessly into the gradually unfolding narrative. For me, this gave the film an almost neo-noir touch that resonated nicely with the tale itself: a romantic and emotional detective story.
Chang (Chye Chee Keong) is trying to uncover where his wife Ling Yue (Amy Len) has vanished to. Ostensibly leaving the seemingly sedate domesticity of her life, one morning, to go to work, she just disappeared. Into the picture arrives Tong (Pete Teo) -- who, as it transpires, has been Ling Yue's lover.
James has, in the past, explored the sad emotional terrain of love: the failure of people to properly connect, and the emotional scars that love can inflict. But in "Before We Fall In Love Again", he provides us with a further reflection on the mysterious nature of love, evocatively revealed as we skip backwards and forwards through time and place: using temporal shifts, the film charts the nature of two love affairs, alongside the subsequent narrative of two men -- unlikely accomplices -- and their attempts at searching for a missing wife and lover.
Amy Len gives Ling Yue a rounded three-dimensionality, while cleverly maintaining a veneer of mystery. Do we ever really know what makes her tick? The two men in her life find themselves on a journey to discover if they, indeed, really knew her. That such a journey, built upon revelation and sleuth-like detection, becomes a reflective tale lies at the heart of why this assured work is so strangely charming.
Pete Teo, as the lover Tong, gives an uncharacteristically restrained performance here, one that plays down his screen charisma (quite palpable, as witnessed in Ho Yuhang’s “Rain Dogs”, last year). This pitches his performance alongside the other two leads quite nicely, and again sustains the revelatory -- but not exclamatory -- nature of this quirky mystery.
Giraffes and Washing Machines
If that brief synopsis leads you to believe that "Before We Fall In Love Again" is a bleak and unrelenting tale of love gone wrong, then I have severely misled you; the film is peppered with wit and humor. Recurring interactions between Tong and Ling Yue and a staff member at the slightly seedy establishment that rents the lovers their rooms by the hour were plainly hilarious; a brief scene in a car park with a bunch of gangster types was given extra humor by the inclusion of a Japanese hood with immaculate manners. Odd, interesting characters never fail to crop up in James’s otherwise serious view of the world. And while a sequence at the zoo at night -- which segues to an amazing shot of a giraffe -- may not be overly amusing in the usual sense, high points for cinematic quirkiness must be accorded!
(It perhaps would not be a James Lee movie if there wasn't a washing machine present; in this film the recurring motif crops up inside apartments -- and at a department store, where a salesman attempts to sell Chang and Ling Yue one; an in-joke that should remind viewers of 2004's "The Beautiful Washing Machine".)
The film captures identikit motel rooms and interchangeable apartments; a scene in a café is a lesson in beautiful screen composition: windows, pictures, tables, menu and actors all composed like in a painting. Teoh Gay Hin, as Director of Photography, confirms again the aesthetic command he has with a camera, and the editing by Jimmy L Ishmael is paced in sympathy with the director's screen world.
Towards the end, the journey that we've been following is revealed to have been shaped largely by memory -- at that moment, where the unreliability of testimony and of truth becomes glaringly apparent, "Before We Fall In Love Again" leaves the mystery of greyscale and jumps into lurid color. Most stylish indeed!
James’s second feature is a little more problematic. “Thing We Do When We Fall In Love” is a peculiar and sometimes unsatisfying work; there are no washing machines -- and no humor or irony, either. I will, of course, await the third installment of this trilogy before a complete assessment -- but for now, as partnering pieces, I am confused by the suggested simpatico.
An unhappy couple of lovers head out of Kuala Lumpur on a spur-of-the-moment road trip -- during which it is revealed that both have had affairs with other people, and neither can honestly deal with the repercussions of their actions. The evocative cinematography that Teoh Gay Hin brought to “Before We Fall In Love Again” is tempered, here, with a rough, hand-held edginess and voyeuristic harshness -- and it is this harsh gaze that makes the doomed relationship all that more uncomfortable.
This look at the modes of betrayal that paralyze couples who may actually still be in love with one another is the theme that links the two films, but I felt unmoved by the characters -- and, mid-way through the film, wondered if I really cared for them at all. By the film’s end, I wanted to know whether a tale about a relationship such as this could bring anything to our understanding of love and all its painful complexities. Perhaps if I had felt more sympathetic towards the two characters, I might have cared more -- but they were shallow and one-dimensional. They both had a lack of flexibility that seemed at odds with their acknowledged love -- and with their acknowledged and mutual adultery. That may be the point, but after the much richer experience of “Before We Fall In Love Again”, I was left largely unmoved and perplexed. Can we really feel anything other than frustration with people who are willfully self-indulgent?
“Things We Do When We Fall In Love” does offer some interest: I found the foreboding silences between the two main characters (Amy Len again, with the bespectacled Loh Bok Lai) intriguing, and it kept me wondering where we were headed, with its strange moments of banal and awkward non-connectivity that marked their journey. The material world that they encounter lets them down too - the plumbing in the tenth rate hotel room is obstinate, and the appliances and engines that drive the trip -- and these two lives -- break down.
After arguing in their cheap motel room, our male protagonist drives off, ostensibly for one of those cool-down cigarettes -- only to get out of his car, in an empty roadway in the middle of the night, to break into a whimsical dance routine. The pop song in the background rises; the dance routine itself blurs the diegetic possibilities of sound and music -- becoming, as it were, a sort of cinematic punctuation mark.
At the Helm
See these films, by all means. But if I were wondering into Mid Valley Megamall this weekend -- both are showing on Golden Screen Cinemas’ ironically named International Screens -- I would sit through “Things We Do When We Fall In Love” first, then reward myself with the style and narrative intrigue of the richer and more substantially rewarding “Before We Fall In Love Again”.
There is a sense, with “Things We Do When When We Fall In Love”, that the director has allowed the film to coast along under its own volition. I am not suggesting that the film is not under the helm of its director, but that it lacks the sense of authored control and finesse that “Before We Fall In Love Again” so exudes. This is a shame, because James has a great capacity as a helmsman -- and I look forward to seeing what he offers in the final installment of this intriguing trilogy.
~~~ Benjamin McKay is a lecturer and film critic. 22. 05. 2007