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Desperately Seeking Someone

(3 STARS) THE PERSONALS. (U) An eye doctor opens a Pandora's box of

emotional issues when she places a personals ad in search of the perfect mate.

Directed by Chen Kuo-fu. 1:44 (adult situations). In Taiwanese with English

subtitles. Cinema Village, Manhattan.

THE HIGHLIGHT OF the 1998 romantic comedy "Next Stop Wonderland" occurred

when single gal Hope Davis interviewed a series of respondents to a personals

ad her mother had planted on her reluctant behalf. The flash-cut montage of

smarmy bachelor candidates offered a tour-de-force actor's opportunity for

Davis, whose face reflected the amusement and agony of an intelligent woman

confronted with a battery of inappropriate choices.

Imagine an entire movie constructed around such tete-a-tetes, and you have

some sense of "The Personals." What is harder to imagine is that such a device

could sustain an entire film. But Taiwanese director Chen Kuo-fu and actress

Rene Liu have fashioned something surprisingly arresting and humane out of

what is essentially the same audition-sequence convention that moviemakers have

dragged out for quick laughs since "Fame."

Liu plays Du Jiazhen, a smart and reasonably attractive ophthalmologist who

decides it's time to stop fixing the eyesight of others and start expanding

her own field of vision. She quits her job and places a husband-wanted ad in

the paper, triggering a rather impressive onslaught of a hundred responses.

Setting up shop at a teahouse table, she holds court for a parade of men (and a

couple of women) whose sincerity is generally outdistanced by their chutzpah.

There is the predictable array of guys looking for sex, including a

high-end pimp who offers Du a job, and a smooth-talking married man who

slithers around his true objective, hoping not to have to bring up the S-word.

There are the get-the-cane oddballs such as the betel-nut addict and the shoe

fetishist. Most amusingly (and perhaps least credibly) are the guys who arrive

bearing the tricks of their trade: the actor who shows up in full disguise, or

the personal-defense hardware salesman who gives a free stun-gun demonstration.

Cinematographer Ho Nan-hong manages to locate as much variety in such

encounters as the screenplay does, which drives home a cogent point about the

voyeuristic potential of personals-ad campaigns. Through all, Liu is a

commanding and ever-changing mask of reactions as a woman who observes her

suitors as if looking out from the protective shield of a dark-tinted window.

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