Archive: THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE: James Lee interview
In 2005 I had the opportunity to conduct a few interviews with filmmakers who were presenting their first, second or third feature film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. These were done for a magazine called YDN (Young Designers Network). This is the first of those I will reprint here.
MEI LI DE XI YI JI / THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE (2005)
A film by James Lee
What happens when your washing machine breaks down? You get a new one. Only the lead character of THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE, Teoh, a young guy with a simple job, after looking off into the distance for a long while, decides he’s gonna get that used one on discount, yeah that in the corner over there. After installing it at home he cleans his clothes and just goes about his regular business. But when the washing machine starts going off in the middle of the night by it’s own accord you know something’s up.
Only nothing can prepare you with what that is. One morning, there is a young woman next to the washing machine and Teoh just kind of goes with it and asks his mysterious new friend to do the washing of the clothes. When she doesn’t complain, Teoh decides he’s gonna let her do other choirs too. It isn’t before long that Teoh even starts pimping out his new friend. The mysterious woman never speaks and silently goes along with everything.
People have mentioned that the film has a certain Buster Keaton comedy vibe to it, while Bunuel wouldn’t be misplaced either. Scenes tend to last several minutes and sometimes even in the same shot. You try and predict how a certain scene will end, but more often you’re just flabbergasted and in stitches at what Lee just comes up with for his characters to do. Teoh is the ultimate slacker and the ultimate asshole to boot. He misuses his new friend to the extreme and rarely regrets anything. When a pimpdeal goes wrong he loses his mysterious friend and she ends up in someone else’s car. This ends up being a rather caring father who takes her in and in no time gets used to the fact that she does all the cleaning. The man’s daughter has of course her doubts about what this new ladyfriend of his father’s motives actually are.
James Lee’s ultra low budget digital film is something of a gem. With so many digital films playing at festivals, it’s hard coming across one that actually makes you forget you’re watching a ‘videofilm’. The attention to the framing is something that most digital filmmakers can learn from. It’s beautiful use of space and mise-en-scene is something that elevates the whole look of the film. Usually digital filmmakers just run around with the camera and point it in eachother’s face. Hoping to get some sense of direct contact with the viewer. While in some cases this might work, the audience is usually just left numb and overdosed on immeadiacy. THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE is the perfect example of good films that are shot on no budgets with (partially) unprofessional actors. You just need the creativity (and digital video creates that independent freedom) and some friends and time, maybe even spruce up some money and you could make a quality film.
Interview with James Lee
Baris Azman: Being a starting filmmaker myself, I was wondering about the more productional side of the film. What was the budget and how long was the shooting schedule of the film?
James Lee: It was close to 50,000 US dollars and a ten day shoot. Pre-production was about two months and the post was the longest.
What I liked about the film was that, apart from so many digital features, THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE was more aesthetic. It felt more cinematic in the way that the shots were composed rather than shooting everything hand-held and on the fly.
Hopefully we did a good enough job that people won’t remember it is digital.
How was the working relationship with the Director of Photography; Teoh Gay Hian?
It was the first time I worked with that camera-man. Hian is trained in London and then moved to Taiwan and he ended up in Malaysia doing a lot of commercials, which is entirely different from what he learned. And when we got a chance to work together, he saw what kind of work I did and he went ‘oh wow, this is kind of different, I’ve never seen this before’.And the challenge was, he’s not gonna shoot it in 16 or 35mm. It’s gonna be digital video and I want it to have the same aesthetics and feeling as film. And he spent a few days on the camera (Panasonic AG-DVX100), it was very new for him, but eventually he figured it out.
Was there much lighting involved?
Minimal. We rarely used extra lights when we were outside.
How did the financing of the film come about, I saw a lot of brandnames at the end of the credits.
This is, compared to my other features, a big budget. There were two major sponsors, one was a restaurant and the other one was a soft drink company. About seventy percent of the budget came from them and the rest was from friends and myself.
How did you present the idea to the companies? What was your winning technique in getting those companies to hand you over their money?
Actually, there is no winning technique (laughs). We tried a lot and the restaurant-owner was a close friend of one of the producers. The soft drink company had too much cash lying around. Because usually at the end of the year they have to clear a lot of money. Soft drink companies sometimes sponsor concerts, so we offered them the project and asked for little money that they could write off. So I’d say there is no winning formula, just that you bang on a lot of doors. Most of the time when a big company gives money, it’s because the guy handling the cash likes film. And that person is very hard to find. Most of the times they don’t know much about film.
Would you consider ever shooting on film? Or does the digital medium give you a certain amount of creative freedom where you don’t have to answer to producers?
If I could shoot on film in an independent way, I would like to make a return on it, but it doesn’t look that way now. Plus there isn’t any money in film in Malaysia, so I will be sticking to digital for quite some time. Because it’s really convenient. There were only four people on the crew for THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE. The camera-man, the camera assistant, who also functioned as a gaffer and then we had a grip and one sound-man. That’s all. Of course the planning was also very precise. We made sure that if we’d go to one location, we don’t pack all the lights, like for instance we’d go to the supermarket, there’s enough light, we’re not going to use all the lighting equipment. So it makes the shooting very fast.
You’re production company is called Doghouse 73? How much of a company is it?
Okay well, it’s an illegal outfit. As in, it’s not even registered. It’s my house. Maybe later on, I will register it, but just having a company name, people know how to get to me. Before, that was quite a problem sometimes.
Where did the idea for the film come from?
It came from the washing from my own house. It was a different and newer model. The first story I had was entirely different, the roles were reversed. The woman owned the machine and a man came out of it. But during the process and discussions I had, that changed.
From everything. Inspiration you can’t really narrow down. Like I could be watching a play and something might interest me and it could stay with me and have no meaning yet, until later on. Music of course and I like the films of John Cassavetes. I have seen most of his work, not all of it, but I really like OPENING NIGHT (1977). I can’t believe how he could make a film like that, I mean, it’s a low budget, hand-held, it’s very good. But also David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-Wei, the more contemporary new directors.
Could one say that the film’s theme is a variation of the ‘genie in the bottle’? And that the characters in the film use her as a means of ‘getting their wish’?
You’re actually the third person that mentions that to me. It can be like that yeah, but my original idea was to contrast two stories. One is more observant and silent, the single guy. The second part, with the family, is more like a soap opera. If you understand Cantonese you’d recognize it as a sort of soap opera style of talking. The way they talk, the beats in between. The idea was to contrast these two styles and at the same time present two different stories.
How do you get word out in Malaysia about your film, since you don’t have a distribution deal?
Well, we keep it very down to earth. As in, me and my team have to do it ourselves, we are not Hollywood, we don’t have access to billboards or have budgets to make big posters or tv and radio ads. We target it at colleges, art schools, bookstores and we just put up our own posters. We just promote it that way ourselves. We go to schools and spend like thirty minutes with the people in charge and say, we wanna show our movie here. We show some shorts and discuss it with them. This method, we just only started using it two years ago. Fighting the Hollywood system, even in Malaysia is useless, you’d be putting up a small posters next to a huge Hollywood one and it would be pointless. So we just try to take it straight to the audience.We used to show the film in the school’s auditorium and just charge a small fee for the audience and just split it with whoever owned the establishment where we were showing our film. But last year one cinema theatre bought two digital projectors, for the whole country, but that’s still good. So now they wanna show digital features by independent directors. I mean, it’s good and bad, because the theatre owners still choose the films, they still wanna see the film and decide if it’s marketable. It took me one year to finally get them to say yes and THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE is finally getting a release in Malaysia this April. But I still have a long way to go, because I have no idea how the general public will respond to it. It’s a hard film to sell. Eventually they didn’t want to release it because they thought it was too long, it took up too much space for other films to be shown. It has no immeadiate recognizable stars. But two good things happened thanks to running around on film festivals, which is very important for small films. One, a Korean distributor bought the film for a general release in Korea and the other one is, when the film won a Fipresci award, it was the first time a Malaysian film won one, so know they want to screen it in a bigger way. Now they can categorize and stand behind the film and see that it’s good and they say ‘oh it’s arthouse’. I mean I’m happy, but at the same time sad because I don’t think they should judge the film by it’s awards. Because not all films can win awards. Look at it in the International Film Festival Rotterdam, there are so many good films, but just because they don’t win an award doesn’t make it a bad film. In my country unfortunately they still react that way, because it’s easier to market. Because for god’s sake, if all filmmakers make a film and they have to get an award before it gets shown, that would be war man!