How much Asian cinema can one city take in a single summer? Last month’s New York Asian Film Festival placed some of the continent’s edgier output (Vibrator) alongside its most expensive blockbusters (Infernal Affairs, Hero). An even more miscegenated congregation of talent, budgets, and nationalities, this week’s Asian American International Film Festival offers less star power, but in terms of democratic reach, it’s the one to beat. Of course, what qualifies as an “Asian American” film is up for debate. Does Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle make the cut because its stoner protags are of South Korean and Indian descent? (Yes.) Do the films of ’30s auteur Hiroshi Shimizu count, even though they are set entirely in Japan? (Yes again.) Whatever the rules, something must have gone right for the selection committee to include James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine, one of the festival’s true finds.
Set in present-day Malaysia, Lee’s deadpan exploration of consumer anomie demands at least two viewings—the first to absorb its steady stream of hypnotic, fluorescent-lit images, and the second to parse its intersecting story lines. Teoh (Loh Bak Lai) is a bespectacled cubicle slave who decides on impulse to buy a used washing machine. The unit promptly breaks down, initiating a series of customer service calls that culminates in the appearance of a nameless young woman, who becomes his live-in maid. The movie gets weirder as the woman changes hands halfway through the story, becoming the concubine of a lonely widower. An absurdist allegory on the perils of secondhand ownership, The Beautiful Washing Machine contains Buñuelian flourishes aplenty, but its primary influence lies closer to home: The Tsai-chological pall that hangs over the quasi-mute characters is as chillingly humorous as some of the Taiwanese master’s best work.
Even more verbally ascetic, Yasuaki Nakajima’s After the Apocalypse follows five nuclear holocaust survivors who have lost their ability to speak as they make their way through a trash-strewn wasteland. Fashionably misanthropic, this wordless fable is dramatically inert but contains moments of stark visual beauty, as when one of the survivors (played by the director) sketches the outline of a woman in the dirt and falls asleep beside it. Oddly, the festival falters in the one genre in which Asian cinema has been a consistent powerhouse: the alienated-youth odyssey. Royston Tan’s 15 and Steve E. Mallorca’s Slow Jam King go to great lengths to show that Asian kids can be as messed up as the rest of them. The upshot: Save yourself time, money, and brain cells and rent Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures.
Not to be missed, Take Out chronicles a day in the life of a deliveryman for a Manhattan Chinese eatery. This zero-budget feature makes the most of its crude production values by shadowing its hero in a faux-documentary style as he makes his rounds through pouring rain and hostile traffic. Directors Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker have clearly studied the Dardenne brothers, and Take Out reserves a detached yet empathetic gaze for its protagonist’s mounting physical exhaustion. “Sometimes I wish I never came here,” he says of his adopted country. By the end, he realizes that there may be no way out.