Stéphane Mas: Adultery through vacuum cleaning

How to show a disappearance without seeing the one on process in the heart of a couple ? Here, the disappearance of a woman leaving her husband, not for a lover, but leaving both at once, brings to the encounter of the two men in a mirror structure.

A man awakes, just out of his dream, his quilt around his waist like a rustling dress. The room is empty. The flat is empty. The bathroom is empty. His wife left him, leaving behind nothing but a puppy and an aquarium. Malaysia is a society built on aquariums. Four transparent glass faces where surface and depth are mixed. Dim light and wide slow move inside a closed space.

Welcome to Malaysia

Mr Chang is invited by his boss to take a break. Obediently, he visits a travel agency where artificial smiling bodies are covering the walls. The Malaysian employee, in this movie, is showing a perfect mastership of the expected submissiveness, being able in turn to promote the romantic virtues of Korea or the hospitality of a hotel specialized in accommodating illicit couples. Wonderful Malayisa where obsequiousness is fundamental to the marketing.

Back home, Mr Chang is addressed by his other self, Mr Tong. Same age, same figure, slender and bent, like a giraffe in a zoo. Same woman too. Ling Yue left. Tong was her lover. Sitting face to face in the small kitchen, the two men get to know each other. Improbable silence and serenity.

Ping pong, doubles, flash backs Even the space is double. The office looks so much like the flat that one could confuse them. Chang's kitchen reflected in the aquarium of his boss office. At the end of a working day, Ling Yue declares her passion to Tong in the company's kitchen. James Lee is displaying the duplication of the spaces to show the duplication of the two men.

Chang and Tong are each exploring the absence of the woman they both love. They explore the locations of their former intimacy. For Chang, this is the time prior to the relationship while visiting Ling Yue's flat, while for Tong this is the time after the relationship, after she fled, while visiting the flat she used to share with her husband.

Chang and Tong are to live expression of the deprivation. The scent of a cream, the blade of a razor. Two innocuous men like two tamed animals. Therefore this wonderful view of the zoo by night, duplicating a former night when the husband could pretend to be a lion because his prey was asleep. But he will finally lay down and fall asleep.

Rohmer vs Hopper or the failing male

Two flat and empty men. This kind of desperate rationality that belongs to teachers. Trying to fill up the emptiness. No matter if legitimate or adulterous, the body of a couple seems indivisible, like welded. Twinned by the camera.

In an extreme minimalism that some may not approve, the Rohmer-like essay on "Why-do-you-love-me ?" displays a session of tooth-brushing in full length. Like a drop of tenderness in an ocean of emptiness. James Lee possesses an existential reserve that put the bore and the loneliness in the heart of a boneless social reality. Bare walls, sofa, dry flowers, a newspaper and two cups of coffee. While the outer world is frankly hysterical, Ling Yue's flat reminds of the empty appartments in Edward Hoppers, mirrors of their inhabitants, as if absent of their own life.

In the mood for minimalism – Mr Chang vs Mrs Chan

Playing down and minimalistic, James Lee never simplifies. The framing of the bodies in the space, the framing of the faces, the slow motion, all contribute to a high stylisation hightlighted by the use of black and white photography. The slow moves of the camera reflects the state of the desire in KL. Tenderness inhabits the movie like the intimacy of a couple in a hotel room : softness of the voices, the clumsiness of the bodies…

James Lee gives a quite daring reading of Wong Kar-Wai.The young director treats in a vertical way the shivers of the fingers in search for each other, the pattern of Ling Yue’s handbag. The couple of the betrayed spouses of In the Mood for Love is cut in two and becomes male. As for the trouble generated by the desire, the nostalgia, the music, just forget it. The realistic approach offers but silence and a stiffness not unlike frigidity.

Marriage in warning mode looking for a washing machine for a new life

Should one try to use comparison? The married couple of James Lee carries its despair through the shop windows of the city. Bride dresses are lined up in the same fantastic barroco style than the lines of washing machines. One reason certainly why Ling Yue selects both. Later on, her honey moon will be put to end by running out of petrol on a highway. Quite nothing in itself but a metaphor of the endangered couple in trouble even before existing.

James Lee decided to materialize the building where Ms Chan and Mr Low live with a simple staircase. Still, romanticism is never far. Thus the newly married couple could believe in happiness as long as life provides an appropriate setting. The couple is in a tender embrace and then comes down to the real world. Still there won’t be any nudity. The hardly perceptible life is to detect in their breath, a tender glance that is far from fullfilling the bodies.

Go and live a love story or the mirror in the adultery

Flat or hotel room do not matter. One understands better this rush outside by a woman who wants to love because it means life. Since the very beginning, the green plants on the balcony show the sky. Light music could bring snow anytime and bring the memory of a first love. (…) One woman leaves and two men get to know each other.

Chang and Tong embody this generation of men who hardly leave childhood. Seemingly they go and look for this woman in order to find the oblivion or a bit of life in her. Chang specially characterizes this gentleness, like a lizard on a kitchen table.

Chang and Tong, couple of clowns for clones

The unlikeliness of the beginning becomes a comic motto in the movie. Having the same singlet, the same spectacles and the same woman, the lover and the husband tend to become clones. James Lee emphasizes this resemblance when the two men go searching for the first love of Ling Yue : only their watch differentiate them.

A third guy is added to the duo. Very exact reverse, Chang Siew Wai, the first love, has become a petty hooligan and is little inclined to nostalgia. Another trio joins soon : Hawaiian shirt and Bermudas on, three henchmen are bringing all cliches of the thrillers.

This inversion of worlds and styles offers Before We Fall In Love Again to an ambiguous end. On one side the black humour of the Hawaiian trio brings its lot of fun. On the other side, the suspect way back to reality with the walk under the neon lights.

Minimalistic purity and narrative brilliance meet in this final. If James Lee is filming the transparency of the adultery opposite to marriage, his portrait of the woman is far more convincing than the failing couple of men.

Satire of a society entirely dedicated to the obligingness, playful homage to Wong Kar-Wai, Before We Fall In Love Again is also a kind slap on the face to all the men who are at pain being males, who awake with a rustling robe around their waist and discover that their wives are gone. From the inversion of the world shown in process, James Lee seems to expect its end and fall in love again.

Translated by Marc Cheneaux from Stephen Mas