A developed film language, a sophisticated film expression and a stylistically established approach to the film material – is something which, a few years ago, in the case of Asian film, we could have expected only from Japanese, Chinese/Taiwanese, Iranian and Indian directors. When it seemed that we would have to wait long to see the flourishing of another Asian filmmaking country, great South Korean auteurs started to appear a few years ago. However, the film of the young Malaysian director James Lee The Beautiful Washing Machine (Mei Li De Xi Zi Ji) seems to confirm once again that films of exceptional quality are no longer the privilege of only large and famous Asian filmmaking countries.
The story about Teoh, a lonely and frustrated office worker and his green second-hand washing machine, and about Mr. Wong, the father of his colleague at work, also a lonely middle-aged widower, was only Lee’s pretext for an imaginatively conceived film about alienation and the type of alienation that becomes hopelessly destructive for both main characters. In their imagination, the washing machine will become a girl who they will cool-headedly take advantage of, without the slightest intention of finding another road to overcome the psychological dead end in which they have found themselves.
However, the most interesting line of the film is precisely the introduction of the character of the girl. Lee, in the fashion of a skillful director, guides this thread of the film in the sense that the viewer first experiences this character on a realistic level, only later, gradually, realizing that the character is part of the main characters’ imagination. This toying with the realistic-unrealistic planes represents, actually, the intertwining of the main characters’ conscious and sub-conscious, while Lee leaves it to the viewer to discover and decipher in his own way the meaning of the girl’s character in the psychology of the two male characters. The world of these two characters is claustrophobic; a world closed to emotions, love, compassion. It is a psychological blockade which seeks and finds the only solution by toying with the subconscious. And this subconscious, in the case of the main characters, is manifested through destructiveness and sadism. Primarily in their attitude to women.
Therefore, this is a film of multi-layered and subtly presented meanings, a film with magnificent black humor, stylized in all its elements and stylistically uniform from the first to the last scene. This reduced expression, stylization, lack of dialogue and insistence on visual meanings is obviously something Lee adopted from the aesthetics of Taiwanese directors, primarily from Tsai Ming-Liang, but in an original manner.
For this kind of film it takes a special type of acting, one that implies a reduced expression and exceptional discipline. This is so because, regardless of the lack of dialogue and the insistence on visual meanings, the actors’ expression is toned down to an expression elicited by movements and mime. In this sense, Lee has managed to obtain the maximum from his actors.
The film The Beautiful Washing Machine was made in digital video and in exceptionally poor production conditions. The result is a film rich in cinematic values.