You Talkin’ To Me?

Toh Hai Leong, a Singaporean film critic, is highly annoying, and not just because he is Singaporean. If you inadvertently acknowledge him, he will talk incessantly at you, not with you. Once, thinking he wouldn’t notice, I turned my back. He immediately ranted, “You young ones, don’t be so big shot. Show some respect. Don’t be an asshole, okay?”

Dressed like a runaway, complete with a dubious-looking bag, Toh Hai Leong survives on maggi mee, film festival finger food, scavenged popcorns and films. He is cantankerous and seemingly incapable of registering other people’s consciousness when he talks, which makes him a grating conversationist, but at the same time, a great documentary subject. In a move of meta-brilliance, he had gone and made a movie about himself. It is called Zombie Dogs, a mockumentary about his mock attempts to make a snuff film. In it, our film critic talks at the camera, and laments the comatose, undersexed, and subservient lifestyles of Singaporeans (himself included). He therefore offers an actor a chance to stick a finger at the system by slashing some poor chick.

At the not so recent Singapore Film Festival (April 2004), I watched Zombie Dogs on video at the festival office. I thought I could deal with him at this level. Somewhere in the middle of this one-hour feature, however, Toh Hai Leong himself dropped by the office. On the screen, an auditionee was declining the offer to act; so the director said to him, “I give you ten seconds to reconsider. I give you another chance. Don’t be an asshole, okay?” Meanwhile, Toh Hai Leong in the office started talking at me from behind – something about the scene, I think – ignoring the fact that I had my headphones on. This was more than I bargained for. It was as if Toh Hai Leong was addressing his reflection and I was his shaving mirror. My head was spinning.

But I like the movie. It is funny, and sad, and true. Through the brilliant editing, Toh Hai Leong’s usual incoherence even achieves a poignant honesty. In many ways, the movie is a bald examination of one man’s desperate eccentricity. His yearning to break through the monotony of life seems both the cause and the result of his inability to fit into normality. But why would one want to fit into normality as prescribed by Lee & Son anyway?

Apart from its anti-climatic resolution (the snuff was never made – phew!) and blatant self-referencing, Zombie Dogs reminds me of the reactionary films of the 70s. While Toh Hai Leong used himself, many directors used fictional characters, which upon closer examination may just be their alter egos.

I made that lame generalisation after watching the documentary called A Decade Under The Influence, which pays tribute to American films of the 70s. In response to the blockbuster flops of the 60s and the failure of the studio’s once surefire formulae, directors like Martin Scorcese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Towne, et al, saw it as their time to create more radical, more socially conscious films. It was a time of Vietnam War, Watergate, and the trade union collapse. From folk singers to street demonstrators, people were protesting and experimenting with ways to free the mind.

With no more romantic epics, folks escaped to the cinema now for collective disillusionment. They empathised with the sociopathic Taxi Driver‘s loneliness and anger. They shuddered with The Exorcist as he loses his faith. They were compelled by The Godfather‘s terrible familial laws and Dirty Harry‘s dirty street laws. From losing faith to making your own rules, the postmodern cinema was challenging the grand schemes. The anti-thesis to the institutions, the states and the masses, is the individual with a lonely mission.

In American films, loners have existed before even Citizen Kane, and if one looks beyond Hollywood, directors like Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, David Lean, Truffaut and Godard have been championing the anti-heroes long before Hollywood decided to cash in. Still, it is amazing. This capitalist Xanadu managed to churn, support and make money out of these anti-establishment characters, which were in turn so readily embraced by the public. You wouldn’t wanna have Travis Bickle or even Toh Hai Leong at your birthday party, but you would feel for them on film.

The irony was bound to implode. The maverick directors and their various personas, once glorified and co-opted, also lost their edginess, their youthful disregard for conventions. The arrival of Jaws and Star Wars gave the studios another formula, one that moved the paying public’s attention to special effects. Special characters, social pariahs and their directors moved back underground, resurfacing now mostly at film festivals.

At this festival, somehow I ended up watching a whole slew of films that captured lonely men. I am quite certain this was no coincidence. After all, I am that way inclined. You get your heart broken by the world enough times, you figure it be best to go it alone. The most honest movies seem to be about this state of being.

The festival’s Best Film award goes to Uzak (dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey; showing at the Kelab Seni Filem this season). A sophisticated city dude with a cool pad has to put up a country bumpkin cousin. Not your usual odd couple comedy, this film resonates in the silent tension between the two isolated souls. Whether together in the apartment, or out wandering the cold streets alone, they are wrapped within their differences and the city’s indifference.

The lonely country bumpkin in South of the Clouds (dir: Zhu Wen, China) is a middle-aged widower, who ventures into a Southern province to look for a girl with whom he once fell in love. One night, while rejecting a prostitute, he was arrested and accused of soliciting. He was thrown in lock-up, then put under house-arrest in his hotel room, and then told not to leave town. His nostalgia, his missed love, and his regrets of a life not lived, is his prison.

A more tragic figure ambles through Crimson Gold (dir: Jafar Panahi, scr: Abbas Kiarostami, Iran). It’s a story about a lumbering pizza delivery guy whose dumb pudgy face registers little. His night delivery takes him to the bourgeois side of town, where he meets the son of a rich man and is invited in to share the pizza (the three girls he invited over had just left). Within this opulent penthouse setting, drinking the finest the man has to offer, the pizza deliverer’s alienation was palpable: none of this will ever be his. All he hopes is to someday buy a wedding ring worthy of the girl he wants to marry. But the haughtiness from the manager of the jewelry store casts him out into the same gulf as the rich son’s friendliness. He was doomed to go under.

Malaysia’s favourite indie filmmaker James Lee is indeed a champion of the loner. His new film The Beautiful Washing Machine sits quite comfortably with the above movies. In fact, it has been receiving critical acclaim with every new festival it gets accepted to. Yet, our local cinemas have told him that it is not marketable enough. It is too slow, they said.

In the movie, James has fashioned an incredible fictional devise: a character with no character. She seems to be the spirit of a malfunctioning second hand washing machine; but she is real and her babeness is in fine working order. Against her available functionality, the various male characters pitch their desires.

Fictional creations with newfound sentience, like the Frankenstein monster, the Replicants in Blade Runner, or Sonny in I, Robot, are always forced to uncover The Meaning of Life as soon as they blink. Folks will be cruel to them, but they will find their humanity. Like us, they will learn to love, they will learn to kill. The washing machine chick, however, goes through the cycles of her functions without fulfilment, hope or self-actualisation. At one point, fearing for her life, she runs away. But then she jumps into another man’s car, and does his household chores for him. Instead of becoming more human, she remains steadfastly mechanical. Maybe she is perpetually afraid. Maybe bewildered. Maybe despairing. Maybe all the above, so saturated is she by these strange human emotions that she becomes incapable of expressing any one.

But this is also a story about the individuals around her. Her great Nonentity teases out everyone’s darker, hidden sides. Is she God? Is she a creation of man? A fantasy? What would you do with her?

These slow, plodding movies, which may appear like artistic masturbation, are revelatory. In them, the isolation of each character is intensified: we are irreconcilably different. But they also bring home the banal truth of our commonality: we are all alone. The long takes have an alienating effect on the audience as well. They force us to regard a person at his most mundane, and therefore, most vulnerable moments. We become voyeurs. Our isolation is also complete.

Maybe we are the washing machines. We post-millennial urban folks have terribly mundane lives; white noise fills our senses, we suffer it in long silences. Back then, when governing ideologies collapsed, people took to protesting, to forming coalitions, to making their own rules. Now we are told we cannot protest, that there is nothing to protest about. We are reduced to chasing our papers in some cubicles. Someone pushes a button and we dry-spin for them. While our space probes float further, our universe closes in on us. We are alone in the crowd. And the wisdom is this: the only way to deal with being alone is by learning to be alone.

We need our independent filmmakers, and we need to support them. Films like Ho Yuhang’s Min, Yasmin Ahmad’s Rabun, Bryant Law’s Day After Tomorrow and James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine at least offer us ways to understand our condition. In this age of instant messaging and rushing deadlines and national productivity, the deliberate way these directors force us to contemplate the stillness of life, and who we really are in these moments, is at least one form of protest.

First Published: 29.09.2004 on Kakiseni

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