Tan Ce Ding, “The Masseuse” (2018)
An intriguing film set in a not-too distant dystopian future in Kuala Lumpur, “The Masseuse” poses questions about the nature of free will, and what it means to be human, in an apparent police-state society where it seems that rebels against that society are just as tyrannical, brutal and unfeeling as the enemy they oppose. IT technician Loong (Koe Shern) comes to a brothel to fix an ageing robot in the form of a young woman masseuse (Candy Ice); after rectifying a few little wires in her neck, the robot masseuse seems as good as new and expresses interest in Loong. After some conversation and the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, Loong goes home to his father, who turns out to be a former secret terrorist who fought against widespread automation in society before an accident that has left him permanently disabled. The father punishes Loong severely for not getting rid of more robots and viewers get an idea of why Loong became an IT technician: so he could continue his father’s work by secretly sabotaging robots.
Despite this, Loong continues to see the robot masseuse under the pretence of checking that her circuits are working properly. She has a child-like view and joy of the world, and wants to know what dreams are and what it must be like to able to dream. Loong is drawn to the robot and takes her on outings outside the brothel (presumably the madame there allows her robot assets time off) so she can see the world for herself. Yet his loyalty to his father and what his father has sacrificed for him, and the mission he feels has been entrusted to him, cast a tense dilemma over his relationship with the robot that he must resolve sooner or later.
The acting is well done, especially by Candy Ice; Koe Shern seems more wooden and even a little robotic which perhaps is intended that way, the robot masseuse demonstrating more innocent emotion and feeling than do the shuttered, put-upon humans do in the oppressive society they live in. Kuala Lumpur seems an impersonal city, full of gates and other prisons, physical, emotional and cultural alike. His loyalty to his father, the weight of Chinese cultural tradition that demands respect for one’s elders, the legacy of his father’s fight against the authorities and the impersonal, inhuman society they have brought to Malaysia: all these imprison Loong and ironically stop him from being a full human being to the extent that the robot masseuse is able to achieve when she is with him.
Viewers can see from a long way off that a cruel twist will come, and a very devastating one it is too, in a film of longing and attempts by two lonely figures, hampered by their respective prisons, to connect with one another and become truly alive. Instead Loong becomes truly dehumanised by his actions and that perhaps is the worst twist. In its own way, this film is a perfect illustration of the human existential condition in a society where politics, the economy, culture and personal and family loyalties can threaten to make a human being less than human.