Dir/scr: James Lee. Malay-HK-Chi. 2006. 99mins.

Husbands and their wives' lovers have never hit itoff as well as they do in Before We Fall In Love Again, a strange and tightly controlledMalaysian romantic drama. Granted, it would have gained much by being shot onfilm, but even in its digital form it confirms the talent of film-maker JamesLee (The Beautiful Washing Machine):possibly he should consider being more ambitious in his production techniquesfor his next feature.

Shot in black-and-white,this story of a recently married man whose wife mysteriously disappears, and whoselover appears from nowhere to help look for her, may be too rigorous andlow-key for wider arthouse audiences. That said, itcould find favour among devotees of film from the region and enjoy extensiveexposure at festivals. After Pusan it plays Tokyolater this month.

Six months after her wedding,Ling Yue (Amy Len), leaves one morning and vanishesinto thin air, not even taking her toothbrush with her or leaving a note forhusband Chang (Peter Teo).

A few days later, afterbeing offered compassionate leave at work, Chang meets a stranger, Tong (Chee Keong Chye),who introduces himself as Ling Yue's lover, andpretends to be as worried and as mystified as he is about her disappearance.

As the two of them have acup of coffee together in the most civilised manner possible under thecircumstances, Ling Yue's past emerges through aseries of sober, precise flashbacks; first through her relationship with Tong, onceher boss at work, then later with Chang, who she married.

Lee establishes her as thefocal point of the story, revealing her as a determined person who takes theinitiative 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 inthis cool, unsentimental rendition of the past, so a growing physical andemotional resemblance emerges between the two men, extending into their careersand social status. The only seeming explanation as to why Ling Yue would marry the second of them, while keeping incontact with the first, is that the latter already has a wife and family.

Or is it' One could alsoguess that if Ling Yue does leave them both, then itis because she is looking for something quite different, as hinted by herexpress wish to visit Prague, a plan acknowledged but never fulfilled by eitherone of the men. But there is no real evidence to support this, for the more we learnabout these relationships in her life, the more of a mystery she remains. Thereis also the question as to whether she has had secret relationships with othermen.

Despite the circumstances,neither of the men raises his voice until a late, out-of-character episode inwhich the pair accidentally witness a violentunderworld settling of accounts in a parking lot.

A noticeably ironicunder-current runs throughout, as when Chang proposes to Ling Yue with a loud chorus of frogs croaking accompaniment in thebackground. Only an unnecessary epilogue feels out of place.

Amy Len convincingly lendsher character a frankness that never opens up into anything more intimate; thedifference between 'liking' someone and 'loving' them,often discussed, seems pointless in her eyes.

The two male protagonistsare both supposed to be similarly average, non-descript bureaucrats (even theglasses they wear look alike), who are equally bemused by what has been befallenthem - but it means that Peter Teo
and Chee Keon-chye have tostay within the boundaries of middle-class mediocrity.

Lee's rigorous yet relaxed styleand unobtrusive but careful way of placing the camera is quite exemplary andnever pries into his characters' privacy beyond a certain limit (there are nosex scenes).

The most serious problem heencounters, possibly because of his production process, is the quality of theimages themselves. Shot on Digi-Beta, Before We Fall InLove Again looks undeservedly flat and unimpressive, lacking the beauty thatblack-and-white at its best can possess - for shame given the efforts investedin the production elsewhere.

Production companies/backers
Paperheart Limited
Da-Huang Pictures
October Pictures

International sales
Focus Film Limited

Tan Chui Mui
Lorna Tee

Gay-hian Teoh

J Ishamel

Ronnie Khoo

Main cast
Peter Teo
Amy Len
Chee Keon-chye