Review: Revolution Launderette (2019) @SGIFF

When pondering a work of art, we often find ourselves grasping for a meaning that seems so fruitlessly out of reach. If “Revolution Launderette” proves anything, it’s that meaning need not always be deciphered. Not that it always can be, at least in this case. The film marks the sophomore feature of musician-filmmakers Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen.

Chua and Lam are the co-founders of Emoumie, a Singapore-based film and music 

Production company that prides itself on artistic exploration and experimentation. The pair have produced compositions and sound projects that have been presented around the globe. The past two years marked their foray into filmmaking. 

Their previous feature length endeavour, “Cannonball” (2018), left much less of an impact than its title may suggest. In it, Chua and Lam play the main characters in a semi-autobiographical odyssey across Australia. “Cannonball” was a film that teetered between a fictional narrative and a documentary. To the film’s detriment, the directors failed to commit to either, let alone strike a balance between the two. Ultimately, the film’s highly experimental nature made me deem it more worthy of a museum exhibit than a silver screen.

With “Revolution Launderette”, the directors combine a plethora of genres that make for an even more precarious balancing act. There are elements of drama, animation, music, experimentation, fantasy, and be it intentional or not –– comedy. Yet as precarious as this seems, Chua and Lam manage to tread the fine lines between these genres ever so carefully. As careful as they are however, the film still struggles to find a middle ground between them all. As a result, the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Funnily enough, the film’s plot is even more enigmatic than its title. The film is set in Tokyo, Japan, where Tomo (played by Keisuke Baba), and his partner Hiroko (played by Kiko Yorozu) throw themselves into every encounter that comes their way. Between their encounters, they exchange philosophical ramblings about dreams, freedom and existence. Tomo eventually embarks on a journey to, quote on quote, “beat his existence to the next punchline”. Poetic as this may sound, there is little poetry to be found in the musings of the main characters. 

To the filmmakers’ credit, there is a competence to the filmmaking here that was absent in their previous film. Cinematic necessities like sound and image quality have been given much needed attention. If this proves anything, it’s that Chua and Lam work best behind the camera rather than in front of it. 

The most notable feature was the music. The soundtrack provides Chua and Lams’ most virtuoso display of their musical talent. The pairs’ background in experimental sound-making left me disappointed with their previous feature length effort. “Cannonball” was severely lacking in that domain. With “Revolution Launderette”, Chua and Lams’ combination of orchestral instrumentals with hints of jazzy acoustics make for a lively and energetic score. They even spliced in the punk rock tunes of various underground indie groups from Japan.

I wanted to highlight a sequence where two street side statues begin discussing philosophy. Even though the scene bore little relevance to the plot, it stuck out to me the most. I got the sense that the filmmakers made it, not because it was necessary, but simply because they could. As haphazard as that may sound, it was one of the aspects I admired the most. Moments like this remind me of the joy that comes with simply picking up a camera and shooting the first thing you find interesting. Perhaps the spontaneity of the two directors is mirrored by the spontaneity of the two main characters. It’s arguably the most honest form of cinema, even if it isn’t the most engaging. 

This laissez-faire approach harkens back to the exploratory spirit of the French New Wave. Much like the works of Jean-luc Godard or Agnes Varda, “Revolution Launderette” is so unburdened by the conventions of narrative storytelling. 

Interestingly, I found Tomo to be a contemporary echo of Pierrot (as played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), the titular protagonist of Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (1965). Perhaps the most striking similarity is the manner in which they drown themselves in their own poetry and beliefs. If anything, Tomo’s philosophical musings may as well as have been lifted from the pages of Pierrot’s diary. Though unlike Pierrot, Tomo’s musings tend to overstay their welcome, along with many other elements that bog the film’s pacing.

Not all films need to be made for a particular audience, but it’s also hard to imagine a film like this finding one. Some moments are intriguing, while others are simply head scratching. However, I can’t deny that “Revolution Launderette” is a fascinating, if not puzzling, exercise in breaking the rules of cinema.

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