James Lee's meditative 'Before We Fall In Love Again 念 你 如 昔'
Before We Fall In Love Again is the first film of Malaysian indie director James Lee's planned 'Love trilogy' (a series of three standalone films that share the same central theme and recurring cast members, something like Korean director Park Chan Wook's 'Revenge trilogy', but without the sex and violence, and with a much lower budget). The film is about two men and the woman they both love.
Chang (Chye Chee Keong), is trapped in a state of emotional paralysis after the sudden disappearance of his wife Ling Yue (Amy Len) a month ago. One night, he is visited by a stranger, Tong (Pete Teo), who reveals himself to be the lover of Ling Yue, and is just as worried and befuddled by her disappearance as Chang is. As both men have coffee in an extremely civilized manner (haha, obviously, if I were Chang, and facing such a situation, I would've tried to kick Tong's ass), their relationship with Ling Yue begins to unfold in vignette-styled flashback scenes. First, an affair with the married Tong, who was Ling Yue's superior in her office, and later, with the mild-mannered Chang, whom later became her husband.
I have seen many romantic films where two people are suddenly thrown together because their respective spouses have betrayed them by carrying an adulterous affair. In the case of BEFORE WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN, the bond we see is forged between the cuckold husband and the er, cuckolder, a unique plot element much lauded by most positive reviews of this film. The last third of the film is almost like a buddy movie between the two, although it is also looked upon as a film noir where two regular dudes got screwed badly by Ling Yue's femme fatale.
Shot in DV, and in black and white, some have complained about the flatness of these images, yet I found myself truly fascinated by the aesthetics of this film, felt like something I've never seen before. I think I liked the cinematography, and the composition, and I think his expertise in these areas may be what separates James Lee from others in the Malaysian indie filmmaking scene. Scenes that stood out to me include a late night visit to the zoo, and wandering through a long corridor of wedding dresses (a supposedly joyous occasion feels something entirely... different).
There is no denying that James Lee has a distinctive style that makes you go 'oh, this is a James Lee film' when you watch something by him. Even Kannan, director of the TV movie I worked in, would say something like "Don't pull a James Lee" or "nope, this ain't a James Lee film" when asking an actor to emote or be expressive. Regular filmgoers and Chinese media likened James Lee to Malaysia's version of Tsai Min-Liang (... as in, a Tsai Min-Liang who remained in Malaysia to make films), or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But conversations I had with James two years ago made me believe that his influences MIGHT stem more from early day Jim Jarmusch (one of his favourite directors), or the French New Wave (more, ah, Bresson or Godard, I think) and perhaps Michelangelo Antonioni.
Unfortunately for me, the filmmakers I mentioned above tend to make films that I appreciate more than I like, and in many ways, this film belongs to the same category, thus making me highly incapable of coming up with an eloquent soliloquy for how BEFORE WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN has touched my heart. The voyeuristic feeling given to audiences when witnessing the relationships between Ling Yue and the two men, along with the uses of repetition and other methods to convey that both men are mirror images of each other (or even interchangeable due to their physical resemblances) can be a source of fascinated academic discussion, and the more you are into the characters, the more likely you will find yourself being drawn into the film. Unfortunately for myself, my inability to connect with anyone during the first two thirds of the film (perhaps it's really more a personal thing than James Lee's fault), along with how I couldn't get used to the stagey, stilted dialogue, diminished my enjoyment of the film, making me go 'hmmmm...' instead of 'wow!'. (characters in this film are often inexpressive and seldom raise their voices, they have no... er, fire)
These films were inspired by a play, and this particular film, BEFORE WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN, goes for a more deadpan, stylized approach where people. Speak. Kinda. Slowly.
(Sort of reminds me of Wong Kar Wai's DAYS OF BEING WILD, where we had Leslie Cheung saying something like "this minute belongs to us" and "have you heard about the bird without legs who only lands on the ground when he dies?", which are either laughable or poetic, in this film, we have lines which go "Why do you love me?" "I love you because you love me, and I also love you because I like you" "and why do you like me?" etc.)
Thus I found myself alternating between enjoying the visuals, marveling at the composition and then feeling a little indifferent towards the fate of the characters and the unsentimental portrayal of the love stories during the first two thirds of the film. However, to me, it was the last third of the film that got really interesting, as the men stop allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the flashbacks of this girl who screwed them over, and embark upon an all-night quest to find Ling Yue. Their only clue is a letter addressed to her first love.
As it becomes a buddy road movie, where the two unlikely companions are thrown into a series of surrealistic and darkly funny incidents, like being forced to share the same bed in a motel, meeting a mysterious prostitute who needs to hide in their room from her abusive boyfriend, suffering some highly funny insults from Ling Yue's foul-mouthed first love (who has turned into a gangster in trouble), and then running into a few dangerous Japanese goons in Hawaiian outfit at a carpark. It was at this point of the film that made me went "Damn! If only we had less flashbacks between Ling Yue and the guys, and more of this road movie thing! I think I would have fallen in love with this film!". I liked the last act (minus the epilogue) because of its humour and irony, the fact that it doesn't become repulsively self-serious, ultimately, it is a personal work instead of something that SEEMED personal and is screaming for attention because it thinks it has something profound to say. (in simpler terms: it's unpretentious to me)
Among the two films of James Lee's Love Trilogy I saw, I actually prefer this more.
Will review the second film of the trilogy next.
Watch my videoblog entry of James Lee's press conference.