An Old Story: Her Husband Is Sleeping With His Wife

We are never shown the errant spouses, though Mr. Chan is

heard once. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan resolve not to behave as their errant mates

have done, but the strange thing is that Mrs. Chan actually means it. Besides,

the degree of stylization achieved with an unseen husband and an unseen wife

makes it unlikely that Mrs. Chan will ever remove her ornamental dress or allow

it to be torn from her by Mr. Chow-even when they virtually spend nights

together collaborating on a martial-arts serial for Mr. Chow’s newspaper.

Indeed, they seem terrified that their relationship, platonic as it is, will be

discovered by their landlady and the other tenants.

But without any direct confrontation with their respective

spouses, there can be no resolution of their mutual dilemma. The most lyrical

passages of the film are of Mrs. Chan walking alone on her various errands. She

rehearses with Mr. Chow what she will say to her husband, but she never does

it. In the margins of the romance are the upheavals of history that transformed

Hong Kong and all of East Asia. The film ends on a mystical note in a Cambodian

temple, the last resting place of a broken heart. In the Mood for Love is ultimately a work of brilliance that

expresses more than it communicates.

Dance Fever

Thomas Carter’s Save

the Last Dance , from a screenplay by Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards, based

on a story by Mr. Adler, touches on many provocative, once-taboo issues without

plunging too deeply into any of them. Still, when all is said and done, I must

confess that I liked the movie as a form of well-crafted good-bad

entertainment. Much of it is flimsily contrived, sentimental and toothlessly

melodramatic. Its central premise, of a single, beautiful white teenager

becalmed in an all-African-American inner-city Chicago high school, is

completely unbelievable. But what can I say? The awesomely talented Julia

Stiles as the Caucasian cutie makes me want to believe, and the equally

talented African-American performers-Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington,

Fredro Starr and Bianca Lawson-are disciplined enough to take the fantasy plot

seriously, to the point of playing its climaxes full throttle (and without

snickering facetiously).

Ms. Stiles plays Sara, a budding suburban ballerina who is

traumatized by the death of her devoted mother, who perishes speeding

recklessly to her daughter’s audition for Juilliard. Ms. Stiles is clearly

being doubled in the more difficult pointe positions by increasingly obtrusive

cuts to the feet, with occasional full-bodied long shots thrown in to

complicate the illusion. But how Ms. Stiles can strut when she enters the world

of hip-hop, fakery and all. Fortunately, her acting doesn’t need to be dubbed.

Sara’s steamy romance

with Mr. Thomas’ Derek is a long way from the days when Joan Fontaine received

reams of hate mail for holding hands with Harry Belafonte in Island

in the Sun (1957). On a

television show of the same period, a musical number in which Mr. Belafonte

held hands with Petula Clark was censored in the South for fear the Confederacy

would rise again to protest the slightest physical contact between the races.

(Even now, we have the Bush-and-Ashcroft-blessed Bob Jones University to keep

the faith.) Curiously, the shoe is now on the other foot, with African-American

women objecting to white women allegedly stalking the few maritally eligible

black males in circulation. Ms. Washington’s Chenille, a single mother and

student who has to deal with her child’s ne’er-do-well father hanging around uselessly,

tells Sara off, more in sorrow than anger, because she has befriended the

isolated Sara from the outset. Her words of bitter criticism thus carry more

weight for Sara than they would if they had been motivated by jealousy. Derek,

after all, is Chenille’s brother and has been accepted at Georgetown.

In the middle of this brouhaha is the beleaguered Derek, who

not only has to cope with the shifting moods of Sara and Chenille but also the

debt he owes to Malakai (Fredro Starr), a street-smart friend headed for a life

of crime and violence, who took the rap years ago for a robbery he and Derek

committed together. Torn as he is, Derek refuses to accompany Malakai on a gang

rumble.

The sociology here is paper-thin, and the congested dance

delirium of the hip-hop events comes perilously close to a contemporary form of

minstrelsy. Yet Ms. Stiles’ rising star remains in the ascendant, even without

what are normally considered breakthrough parts. Except for her jailbait role

in the otherwise grown-up State and Main ,

she has remained with her peer group both on and off the screen, while

projecting an intelligence and sophistication worthy of the young virgins of

Shakespeare and Austen. After bursting out last year as an updated Katharina in

10 Things I Hate About You (loosely

based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the

Shrew ), Ms. Stiles suggested that the many amusing ways she could say “no”

suggested that she could do anything. Now she has convinced me.

I have almost forgotten Terry Kinney’s thankless role as

Sara’s estranged father Roy, whose gigs as a jazz musician force him to live in

the inner city and send his daughter to an inner-city high school. Mr. Kinney

conveys a hapless decency as Roy, though his marriage to Sara’s mother probably

collapsed because he couldn’t make a decent wage. My heart went out to him as

he or Sara-I can’t remember which-asked Derek if he liked jazz, and Derek

sheepishly replied no. I suddenly had an image of Roy playing jazz for slumming

white folk, while all around him the local inhabitants were ignoring his art.

Not that the film goes very deeply or very seriously into hip-hop, either; it

just stabs at the atmosphere. Save the

Last Dance won’t make my 10-best list at the end of the year, but it is

probably not the worst movie I will see this year-not by a long shot.

Unspecified Husband

Wanted

Chen Kuo-Fu’s The Personals , from a screenplay he

wrote with Chen Shih-Chieh, based on a story by Chen Yo-Hui, takes an

unpromising subject and transforms it into a consistently sparkling entertainment

and, eventually, a moving experience. Rene Liu, a mesmerizing actress in any

language, plays Dr. Du Jia-Zhen, a hospital optician. One day she quits her

job, places an ad in the paper indicating that a “Miss Wu” is looking for a

husband, and waits for what turns out to be a flood of applicants. The

filmmakers have availed themselves of a variety of narrative strategies, mixing

inner monologues with apparent interviews later in time and, of course, the

candid comments of the mob of men who have answered Du’s ad. At first the tone

is comic, as if the filmmakers have chosen to begin with the bottom of the

barrel. As Du tells an academic confidant, she ends up feeling like a voyeur.

She is amazed at how much her suitors tell her, and she is somewhat ashamed as

well inasmuch as she is hiding behind a false name, “Miss Wu” rather than Du.

When she is finally unmasked, it is by a blind former

patient who has recognized her voice on the telephone and comes to the coffee

house to confront her. He asks her why she has chosen a false name to interview

the applicants for her hand. Du doesn’t answer, but we’ve come to suspect

there’s some hidden part of her life that’s expressed in mysterious phone calls

to the answering service of her former lover. She asks the blind man how he

lives, and he replies that he plays his musical instrument under tunnels and

begs for contributions. Eventually Du leaves him under a tunnel practicing his

craft while she continues her quest.

The applicants themselves range from the outrageously

lecherous and presumptuous to the poetically pathetic and poignant. At times,

the spectacle resembles an audition for actors who are not sure what part they

are expected to play-and even less what the unexpectedly attractive “Miss Wu”

wants them to play. The sheer psychological, sociological and physical variety

of the applicants is impressive enough, but the changing reactions of Du are

more impressive still. The Personals

is a real gem of a movie. Don’t miss it.