By Pete Teo
James Lee is working on my music video. So I might not be the best person to review The Beautiful Washing Machine. However, the Kakiseni editor insisted that I am – supposedly because I’d appointed James after seeing the film and thus my analysis would be informed by the right kind of professional mumbo jumbo. It’s all rubbish of course. But the Kakiseni Editor also offered a few bottles of flattery in exchange. So here goes.
A man by the name of Teoh buys a used washing machine. It soon turns into a beautiful but apparently mute woman. He takes her shopping, tries to seduce her, and ends up pimping her for RM120 a squirt. She soon finds herself in the possession of another man, Mr. Wong, whose son (like him) covets her, whose daughter is wary of her, and in whose house she is abused. Then the woman disappears and Mr. Wong goes shopping for Guinness. End.
Now let’s expand on it.
Imagine the woman / washing machine as a metaphor for womanhood. Then hang the metaphor on a surrealistic plot filled with alienated men. Now lace the thing with feminist and anti-consumerism semiotics. Finally, shoot the resultant concoction on a shoestring budget but tell the tale with bravado and intelligence.
What’d you get?
You’d get a string of film festival accolades longer than the proverbial donkey’s privates, that’s what. Not that the doyens of the international art house cinema are always infallible – but in the case of Washing Machine, their enthusiasm is justified. Or at least I think so.
Okay, I’ll admit that this isn’t the easiest film in the world to like. Not by Hollywood benchmarks anyway. There are neither explosions nor real romance; it doesn’t have a pay-off; the acting is deadpan and muted; the camera doesn’t spoon-feed; and despite the film’s billing as a ‘black comedy’, it is not funny. Hell, one reviewer at a major daily even deemed the film a ‘wank’, ‘sham’ and ‘scam’ because it allegedly lacks a ‘story’. But I disagree (not least because the reviewer confuses ‘plot’ with ‘story’). Granted, the film only has a skeletal plot, but it is hugely accomplished in the ‘story’ department. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the film boasts narrative sophistication beyond anything hitherto attempted in Malaysian cinema.
Still, perhaps James is to blame for this. You see, rather than shouting out his story like a nice neighbourly boy, he chooses to deliver it wrapped in wanky symbols and metaphors. So that leaves me no choice but to respond with wanky nonsense as I review the film. Still, if it’s any consolation, I hereby tender my apology to you in advance for masturbating in a public place. I’ll try not to make a mess.
Anyway, let us begin by examining the following scene:
Teoh walks the aisles of a hypermarket. The woman / washing machine follows. The aisles take them round and round in circles, like lab rats in a maze, past endless racks of clothes for sale. They are silent as they walk. Finally, they reach a dead end in the labyrinth. Teoh pauses to consider his options. Momentarily, he finds a small gap between the clothes racks and manages to ease himself out of the cul-de-sac. But their escape only leads them to more aisles.
To those of you who’d been sniffing glue during recess, allow me to explain – James depicts here one of the key themes of the film: The Vacancy Of Modern Consumerism. Smirk. The fact that this scene is a culmination of a series of whimsical television and telephone sales pitches makes it a defining moment in the film. This is even more so when these sequences are juxtaposed with scenes of Teoh at home and at work, where he does nothing but tries to fix his broken washing machine, watch trashy television, and hunt down a recipe for tomato chicken. Teoh is an alienated soul befuddled by the system – like Kafka, in fact – except he’s Chinese and not famous.
Yet, if Teoh’s spiritual alienation is played out with sub-textual subtlety, the urban angst of Mr. Wong (the other male lead in the film) is treated with hammer-fisted irony. As such, James not only gives us an old man who connects with his alienated sexuality by masturbating to gay pornography while wearing an Ultra Man mask, but he also gives us pathos when Mr. Wong’s porn-voyeurism finds denouement in the voyeuristic climax of the film. This is one of very few occasions in the film where one feels compassion and empathy.
The moment is fleeting though. In fact, it is no more than a flicker of light in an old man’s eyes as he succumbs to fear and cowardice. But such brevity adds to its power. This is so because Mr. Wong’s condition resonates so deeply with life in a world where beheading videos stand shoulder to shoulder with Malaysian Idol before they dissolve into a common pool of apathetic indifference. It is thus we buy instant oblivion by the bottle, watch hours of football every weekend, or sleepwalk to the cinema. Occasionally, we get a chance to really rise from our slumber, but courage fails and the moment is gone. It is at such times that we hide behind doors and in the dark – with futility shining in our eyes. Just like Mr. Wong.
But such sentimentality is untypical of James. He is more usually found consolidating his thematic premises with an emotional detachment that borders on the arctic. Thus, even when addressing the other major thematic anchor of the film – The Repression Of Women – he does not gesticulate wildly or preach in indignation. Rather, he merely gives us a female lead who occupies her screen time either by washing dishes or clothes in silence, or walking 3 steps behind the man in silence, or cooking in silence, or being coveted, pimped, seduced and abused, in silence.
Now, I’ve never been a fan of silent soliloquies masquerading as cinema. It reeks of style over substance. Yet there is an undeniable artistic logic in the use of silence here. Why? Because this film is themed upon repression and silence is both symptom and cause of repression. It was the case in Nazi Germany and it is still the same today. Hence, the film’s muted tone is symbolically necessary and correct, especially when the victims of repression are themselves complicit in the general muteness. And herein lies the boldest statement in the film – and the reason why both of the film’s major themes are personified by one and the same mute entity (i.e. the woman / washing machine) – that in a world silenced by consumerist frenzy, the repressed and the repressor stand together undifferentiated.
Either way, such narrative and structural sophistication is why the film has been lauded at so many film festivals. Whether the Malaysian general public will take to a story told largely through symbols and metaphors is, of course, quite a different matter. In a country where the attention span of the average cinemagoer is dictated by the frenetic rhythms of Hollywood blockbusters, and where many compare legitimate usage of metaphors and symbols to unholy masturbation, the film is unlikely to thrive commercially. But this is no criticism. In fact, the only thing it signifies is that we live in a society where instant gratification is preferred to cerebral rumination.
Finally, The Beautiful Washing Machine leaves us with a broken-hearted Mr. Wong as he takes cartons of Guinness from the supermarket shelf. This is apt because Mr. Wong’s plight is really the plight of all of us in our Brave New World. Like him, we are surrounded by instant comfort and televised opiate; like him, we wear private masks and nurse secret pornography; like him, we live in air-conditioned alienation and quiet desperation; and like him, we buy bottled oblivion at the supermarket for RM5.75 a pop, and canned oblivion at the cinema for a few bucks more.
It’s a grim world.
Go see it.
Pete Teo is an independent recording artist. Check out his music and writings at http://www.peteteo.com
First Published: 21.04.2005 on Kakiseni