The Laundromat on the Corner is a 17-minute short film and the directorial debut of Japanese producer and writer, Tetsuki Ijichi. While it takes the form of a traditional “Asian” ghost story, it uses this form to relate an intercultural love story, which crosses not only cultures but also the boundary between life and death. The couple are Jason, a home healthcare worker, and Ming, who works in the family laundromat, Jiang Laundry. Both provide vital services for their communities, while Jason takes care of their personal medical needs, Ming is responsible for providing them with clean, fresh clothes: both are concerned with the maintenance of the human body through care and connection. However, for different reasons, they are lonely, alienated from the community that they serve, and spend their free time isolated from it.
The couple meet when Jason takes his vomit-stained clothes into the laundromat for washing, the result of his encounter with his new patient who has already seen off three health care workers because of her digestive illness. Jason needs Ming’s help as he is not sure how the machines work as this appears to have been the remit of his ex-wife. It later transpires that the laundromat is a family business, started up by Ming’s grandfather. This first encounter leads to a relationship between Ming and Jason, the barrier to which is not their different cultures, but their personal status as Ming is a ghost. Jason, though, is unaware of her ghostly status, believing that he has found his soulmate. Even when the owner of the local Chinese restaurant tries to warn him about her, Jason refuses to accept the obvious. When his latest patient dies, through suicide rather than her terminal disease, Jason finds himself at a crossroads in his life and with a decision to make; whether to continue with his own life or join Ming in the afterlife.
Despite its short running time, Ijichi shows potential as a director. This is shown through his ability to communicate character and emotion through the camera lens. A key moment in the film when Jason discovers Ming is, in fact, dead, takes place in his car in a deserted car park at night. This provides a visualization of alienation and loneliness as the camera switches from outside the car to inside, the vast emptiness of the space almost swallowing up the person contained within that space. Music is also used effectively to connote cultural differences between the couple, as well as to emphasize the many layers of the modern city and the almost forgotten past: when we meet Ming for the first time, her entrance is accompanied by what can be loosely categorized as “Asian” music in its focus on the sound of individual instruments and their combination. Costume also functions to signify the almost ubiquitous “Asian” female ghost, Ming’s white garb marks her out as otherworldly, as does her long black hair. But only once do we get a glimpse of Ming’s demonic origins, when she threatens the restaurant owner if he tells Jason about her ontological status, in this scene her eyes turn red.
On the whole, the camera work is non-obtrusive allowing the story to unfold organically. The occasions when the camera does make itself known functions to emphasize the parallels between people as well as thematic mirroring. One such occasion is when his patient tells Jason that she does not want to continue taking medication. Here a mirror shot is used to separate Jason from his patient, while allowing the viewer to focus on Jason’s reaction to her decision. On another occasion, there is an inset shot of security footage of the Laundromat showing machines working but no-one in attendance. This is immediately followed by the revelation by the owner of the Chinese restaurant that Ming is, in fact, a hungry ghost, perhaps condemned to wander the earth without anyone to say the appropriate rituals to honor her. She does have a living relative, a young woman, who tells Jason that Ming died before he was born. If the narrative trajectory of the film is the commonality between people, despite cultural differences, there is also a lament about the loss of such differences. The shot of the new laundromat that the ghostly couple work at, which is also the final shot of the film, hints at such erasure: while Jiang Laundromat speaks of intergenerational connections, the name of the new laundromat where the couple work is “Daily Laundry”. This can be said to be a mark of the disappearance of the Chinese laundry and the place it played in the Asian-American community. In the past, there had been thousands of such laundries in the US, particularly in New York. This attests to the intergenerational struggle of Chinese immigrants to make a life for themselves in this new country, far from home. Due to the Chinese Exclusion act, they were forced to work in the low-paid and sometimes dangerous service industry, and in particular in the laundry industry. In time, the laundromat would come to signify the same sense of community as the African-American barber shop. Their disappearance, therefore, can be understood as a loss of community and dispersion of intergenerational ties.
Indeed the history of Chinatown(s) in the US is a history of erasure. The earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco left thousands of Chinese immigrants, who were packed into the dense blocks of Chinatown, dead and the remaining displaced as well as almost razing Chinatown to the ground. When the agreement was given for it to be rebuilt, the plans for the new buildings reflected the American romantic view of China rather than that of the immigrants themselves in order to attract tourists to the area. The laundromat at the corner as well as the Chinese restaurant close to it represents this diversification and dilution of Chinese culture. The question asked in this short is whether it is necessary to abandon the old, or the past, in order to move forward. At the same time, Ming is forced into a lifetime of service, but at least through her partnership with Jason, she is no longer on her own. The Laundromat on the Corner has enough complexity to be turned into a feature film which would allow some of the implicit themes around community and postmodern alienation as well as intercultural relationships to be developed further.
Written by Dr. Colette Balmain