THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE (Malaysia / 2004)
*A 2007 (U.S.) Release*
Malaysian "independent" cinema is on the rise. The talented and diverse group of young filmmakers -- including Ho Yuhang, James Lee, Yasmin Ahmad, Woo Ming Jin, Tan Chui Mui and, the highly collaborative DV movements figurative head, Amir Muhammad, who, as his name suggests, is a "Malay," while most of the others listed are Chinese Malaysians -- who for the past few years were slowly making inroads at the second and third-tier Asian and Euro fests have recently broken through at the likes of Rotterdam, Berlin and Vancouver. And now one has even reached U.S., albeit on home video. Ironically surreal, 33-year-old James Lees The Beautiful Washing Machine (Mei li de xi yi ji) feels very much like a film from Tsai Ming-liang (who, as some of us already know, was born in Malaysia). In the film, Tsai-esque motifs of urban alienation and isolation get channeled via meticulously composed (extended) takes, an ambient and atmospheric soundscape, deceptively complex characters, emphasis on quiet, real-life moments.
The first half of the film primarily concerns itself with a lonely office worker, Teoh (Loh Bok Lai), who's recently been dumped by his live-in girlfriend. Sick of washing clothes by hand, Teoh goes out to purchase a washing machine, and ends up buying a used, traded-in model with no possible warranty or replacement parts. After developing a peculiar bond with the unit, one night Teoh discovers a young woman (Len Siew Mee) sitting next to it (is she the machines human equivalent?). Like Tsais Taipei, Lees Kuala Lumpur emerges as a distressed and depopulated city where communication is at a premium, a condition Lee, in a fashion similar to his Taiwanese counterpart, finds a way to imbue with an ironic, deadpan sense of humor. The slightly less compelling second half switches to a solitary middle-aged man (Teoh Kah Yong) with a fetish for gay porn and masks. Hes the owner of the same green-colored, perpetually malfunctioning model. The young woman appears in his house, too. As Lee symbolically imparts, her role, a woman's role, is already defined by the society she lives in and, much like the washing machine, it'll continue to be recycled.