Latest, intriguingly titled black comedy by James Lee, “The Beautiful Washing Machine” is as sparely composed and quietly ironic as last year’s “Room to Let,” but far bleaker and more unsettling in tone. Moving through vast sterile environments of cubicled offices, supermarkets and underground parking lots, Lee’s cigarette-puffing characters exploit a mute girl who may or may not embody the soul of a malfunctioning washing machine. Strange little gem of the semi-sci fi persuasion should shine on fest circuit with cable date possible at cycle’s end.
Subtle, wholly unheralded little surprises sneak up on the flat, dispassionate tedium of pic’s long takes and minimal action. Teoh (played by Patrick Teoh), who just broke up with his girlfriend, buys a used green washing machine that turns itself off and on at whim, only working perfectly when the repairman is present.
Having formed a strange relationship with the machine (dragging it to his bedside, bidding it goodnight), Teoh seems relatively unsurprised when he is awakened in the wee hours of the night and finds a mute (Amy Len) crouched beside the washing machine eating a bowl of noodles. Teoh quickly makes her his live-in slave and peremptorily orders her to clean and cook.
A particularly surreal cut finds Teoh and the girl looking through endless, tightly packed racks of clothing in a shopping mall in the sky (until a different angle reveals that the celestial background is actually the store’s painted wall). Teoh buys the girl a pretty dress, and proceeds to pimp her to passersby at a nighttime ATM. This proves to be a mistake since the very first client returns later with a trio of thugs to wreak vengeance on Teoh as the film briefly veers into “Vivre Sa Vie” territory.
After an existential chase through a neon-lit garage, with figures just missing intersecting one other in satisfyingly patterned, complementary trajectories, the girl hops inside a car and drives off to the second part of the story, her life with Mr. Wong (Loh Bok Lai), a widower living alone in a large house.
As the girl assumes housekeeping duties for Wong (who also owns a malfunctioning green washing machine), his family begins to circle. Lee pans around the house revealing a stunning, complex choreography of desire, voyeurism and jealously.
This anything-but-straightforward little family drama takes place in an oddly silent dimension. Not only does the girl/washing machine never speak, the speaking characters don’t say much either. The sounds that there are — muted sounds that accompany characters’ movements and the sound of a machine revving up and then dying down when the girl first has sex — can also be misleading, as with the loud track of a TV show over an extended pan where everyone is watching each other and no one is watching the TV.
Even weirder are the many supermarket scenes. Characters wander the vast empty aisles of identical products like zombies. Teoh and Wong first cross paths at the meat counter of a supermarket, Teoh picking up a chicken, weighing it in his hand, staring at it and sniffing it before finally placing in his cart and walking away. Wong, who has been standing motionless nearby, then picks up his own fowl and goes through the same motions.
Lensing by Teoh Gay Hian is magnificent, belying typical digital strengths and weaknesses.