Two professions that have been mined by genre cinema to the point of near-redundancy – the assassin and the medium – get a welcome creative jolt from their inspired partnership in The Laundryman. Utilising an abundance of expressionistic colour to create a decidedly off-kilter atmosphere, first-time director Lee Chung has crafted a hugely enjoyable piece of pop entertainment for the after dark crowd.
The laundryman of the title (Joseph Chang) is actually a nameless assassin (the significance of his codename “No.1, Chingtian Street” is part of the film’s big reveal) who works for the enigmatically icy Ah Gu (Sonia Sui). Having inherited her family’s laundry business, she uses it as a cover for her business, removing the “stains from client’s lives” with a network of professional killers bringing the bodies of their victims to the premises for the disposal. Although she has a number of killers at her disposal, Ah Gu has taken a particular liking to the main protagonist with her manner towards him being pitched between concerned mother and playful lover. A scene in which he vigorously tucks into a pancake dish that Ah Gu has prepared as a reward for a job well done hints at an erotic dimension to their relationship that is otherwise unexplored.
When the assassin explains that he is being followed haunted by the ghosts of his victims, Ah Gu sends him to see Lin (Wan Qian), a funky, wig-wearing medium who runs her business out of a nightclub and can become a vessel through which spirits can express themselves. Having learnt that the ghosts will leave him alone once they know who wanted them dead and why, the assassin proceeds to track down his clients with the reluctant Lin coerced into assisting. Although their efforts help some ghosts to achieve closure, they also result in an act of bloody retribution, attracting the attention of veteran police detective Yang (Yeo Yann Yann) and his younger, sarcastic partner Tang (Tsai Ming-hsiu). They follow a crime scene clue to Ah Gu’s seemingly mundane laundry with this unanticipated interest in her business prompting the manipulative proprietress to launch an extreme clean-up operation.
While the film never quite becomes more than the sum of its influences (there’s affection for the genre cinema of both East and West in Chung’s enthusiastic genre-riffing) or finds anything new to say about the archetypal conflicted assassin, it nonetheless provides a vibrant surface. Mostly shooting at night, cinematographer Yao Hung-I gives the eccentric proceedings a ghoulish quality with interiors that are brightly lit yet oddly cramped, suggesting a spiritually infused reality where the living and the dead really can co-exist. The scenes in which the assassin finds the silently tortured spirits of his victims glumly lounging around his apartment or hotel room have a strange makeshift family feel that is heightened by the killer’s awkward inability to communicate with his unwanted guests. This is a true city of ‘lost souls’ with the alluring Ah Gu finding clients by identifying frustrated individuals in places of leisure or commerce and offering her particular service. The design of the laundry itself (the lush greens of the workspace contrast with the deep reds of its private rooms) is wonderfully pitched between ordinary and otherworldly. There are various levels and traditional elements on display, evoking an unlikely backstreet labyrinth. Its business is taken care of with smooth efficiency, with Chung showing how this clandestine service is able to quietly thrive from washing away individual torment.
Within these stylized spaces, the leading performers are perhaps surprisingly allocated a fair amount of room to play off one another. Chang is an oddly vulnerable assassin whose no-nonsense professionalism is tempered by a childlike fear of the supernatural while Sui is clearly having fun by assuming glacial dominance over everyone who comes into her wicked orbit. Wan, following up her Golden Horse-winning performance in the military drama Paradise in Service (2014), throws herself into the physical side of her role when Lin allows her body to be taken over by spirits. The film’s shift in tone is filtered through her performance as the knockabout first half (Lin’s psychic abilities result in some broadly amusing set wreckage) gives way to a more serious second when the medium becomes increasingly affected by these possessions while accepting that her own life is now in jeopardy.
Even in its darker final stretch, which culminates in a kinetic finale in the depths of the laundry, Chung directs with a light touch that asks the audience not to take his film too seriously or closely scrutinise the plot contrivances which pile up faster than the body count. When genres are mixed and set to spin cycle with such knowing panache, it’s a pleasure to oblige.
The Laundryman is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday June 25 at the Walter Reade Theater at 12:30pm. This screening is presented with the support of the Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.