Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From Khoo Gaik Cheng
It wasn’t a case of love at first sight. I’d made an early career of following your film journey, watched you grow through your artsy short films and your features. Sometimes I fell asleep. I remember the first time I watched Ah Beng Returns, (2001) in a small art space somewhere in KL. I was dying for a pee. It seemed interminably long because it was so painfully artfully slow and oblique. I cursed you under my breath. And that strange ending on the highway! What was that all about? I escaped to the loo when the credits rolled.
But through the years I always gave you more credit than others did. Call it blind faith. Or call it a foolish kind of loyalty.
I decided your films needed to be studied. That way, I’d stay awake, playing and re-playing certain scenes on my computer, figuring out composition, watching characters eat their way through their everyday lives from day to day, meal to meal. Could they really be this bored or this boring? Surely there must be meaning behind these banal scenes of purposeful non-acting?
Then I met The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004). I didn’t fall asleep the first time I watched it in Singapore. I remember coming out of the cinema thinking, wow. I remember the buzz of excitement among the Singaporean viewers as they slowly trickled out from the cinema still digesting the film, thinking aloud and discussing it and I distinctly felt proud to be Malaysian. I didn’t really get it then. I couldn’t answer their questions as to what happened. All I knew was that The Beautiful Washing Machine was an enigma, a puzzle I was drawn to, a mystery to be solved and I was rapt.
I guess that’s how love begins. With an enigma. I didn’t watch it again until much later when I had to teach the film. I don’t know about you but I like first impressions. And I cling on to good first impressions, not wanting to spoil them with subsequent viewings that will erase my initial positive encounter. Each viewing experience is almost sacred depending on the time, place and who you experience it with. I remember my viewing of Eliana Eliana (2002) at the GSC in KL one afternoon in a cinema with only a handful of others. Another breathless experience that left me thinking, what have those other viewers who didn’t come missed out on? Or even watching Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) for the first time on television when I was young and telling my father, I know what happens next on the train. A déjà vu.
Yet, I was wrong that subsequent viewings would change my feelings for your Beautiful Washing Machine. In fact, my feelings have grown stronger, partly from showing the film to my students and learning to appreciate you all the more from their essays about it. You should see what they write about your muse: that she’s an alien from outer space, the voiceless victim of male oppression, or perhaps a ghost of the machine. At other times, I had to defend you to them when they got vexed. In justifying why the film is the way it is, and why things turned out the way they turned out, some of which I had no answers for, I grew cognizant of the film’s multi-faceted personality, its subtle nuances and complexities. I may not agree with the choices you make but I can live with them. I can live with unaccountable gaps in logic: partly because they are symptomatic of something else that still eludes me. In fact, I love that I keep learning new things about The Beautiful Washing Machine each time I screen it.
Perhaps naively, it has taken me some time and reflection to realize that this film is a result of calculated logic. Take the order of the scenes, of how the three vignettes come together. If we watch closely enough, I’d tell my students, you’ll find out who she is or who she could be—there are clues along the way. But at the same time of course James, the film isn’t perfect and neither are some of the others. Your endings are given to irrational impulses, quirks that only make sense to you alone: Bok Lai showing up on the porch after the beautiful washing machine kisses Berg at the back of the house. You can’t help sabotaging yourself. It happened in the highway scene in Ah Beng Returns and it happened again in the final scene between Thien See and Sunny Pang in Call If You Need Me (2009). But perfection needs neither loving nor defending. It’s imperfection that keeps me intrigued and brings out my maternal critic’s instincts. It’s imperfection that requires work like most human relationships. Perfect objects only require admiration and adoration. And that’s just plain boring.
Your works on the other hand require patience and understanding. For all your cleverness, sometimes it feels your films lack passion and spontaneity. Your deadpan characters are cruel to each other and relationships detached. I’m not defending a certain strain of misogyny that others have noted in The Beautiful Washing Machine. I’m a feminist and I’ve had to reconcile my own ideological beliefs with the representation of the mute woman. But there are so many ways to read the film, and love is blind. So we choose an interpretation that makes this relationship possible. For example, the mute woman has often been read as your helpless representation of womanhood: passive sex object, domestic slave, silent in the face of prostitution, rape and finally murder. But I prefer to think of her, the ghost of the washing machine or the alien, as the becoming-woman. According to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their concept of the rhizome, becoming-woman is a necessary starting point for both men and women to deterritorialize themselves in order to transcend the hierarchies (of humankind over animals; of men over women, of the first world over the developing world, etc.) that have led to various oppressions and inequalities. It is a world where humans relate to each other and with nature and technology laterally or rhizomatically, relationships branching out sideways and everywhere as opposed to only vertically or from the centre to the margins. This decentering of human subjectivity (and power) gives way to an alternative way of conceptualizing human identity and social relations; one that is more ecologically-based and anti-capitalist.
In other words, The Beautiful Washing Machine is much more than a film about gender relations and gender politics. It critiques the alienation of capitalism and its creation of a non-sustainable oppressive society driven by the constant manufacture of desire for consumption: the supermarket shelves laden with goods, the tightly packed racks of clothing, the advertisements on the radio for a particular sauce all beckon the consumer but never quite fulfill what they promise. The mute woman can alternatively be an alien, the ghost of the washing machine or a silent fantasy given flesh by the male characters in the film who need her either as a substitute girlfriend/domestic helper or female companion. Her birth into becoming-woman/human in this unhappy capitalist consumer-driven modernity is shaped by the introductory image of her consuming instant noodles, that symbolic modern commodity that fills one’s stomach but does not quite fulfill one’s desire; that one eats out of convenience and only provides temporary satisfaction. This recounts the nature of the capitalist machinery itself, i.e. to continuously generate endless desire, which lies at the heart of Oedipalism. While her mysterious silent presence is seemingly irrational and left unexplained, she provides the material body/cipher that connects the isolated male characters to significant women or men in their lives, whether sexually or emotionally. However, the instant noodle in this film nevertheless connotes empty filler for the lonely bachelor (played by Berg’s character) Teoh who is unable to make that process of becoming woman. By this, I mean he is unable to deterritorialize: he cannot cook or use a washing machine or the microwave and is reluctant to learn whereas we see her vacuuming, cooking and hand washing clothes, in other words, becoming woman/becoming technology.
In the film’s conclusion, she is stabbed by Mr. Wong’s jealous daughter in the kitchen. The moment of spilling blood and realizing mortality is her “becoming-imperceptible” (Deleuze & Guattari 278). But rather than leaving a wounded bloody body in the kitchen, she disappears just as suddenly and mysteriously as she had first appeared, becoming “a piece in a puzzle that is itself abstract” (Deleuze & Guattari 308). To be physically wounded and to die would be to end that process of becoming, to stop short the gesture of deterritorialization. It would be to make her a real gendered human, fully subjected to all the oppressive dichotomies that structure what Deleuze calls “arborescence” rather than the more liberating and anarchic “rhizome.” To be fully human connotes being stuck at a point. Instead, the mute woman/ghost is “a line of becoming” which “has only a middle” (Deleuze & Guattari 323), rather than a beginning or an end. The Beautiful Washing Machine teaches us that before becoming-animal/insect/imperceptible, first we have to become-woman.
I know this sounds tremendously academic and is probably far from what you envisioned in your creative capacity. You’re probably scratching your head and smiling in a puzzled way. But it’s my reading of a film that I offer up as a public love letter because I still think it is your most memorable. The Beautiful Washing Machine encapsulates what you tried to articulate in your works prior to this film, and links the theme of human alienation with a strong indictment of capitalism and its workings. But at the same time, it does it with such originality that I can’t wait to teach the film again.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Transl. Brian Massumi. London; New York: Continuum, 2004 edition.
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