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.
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
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
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.
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.
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