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13 December 2005

Cyclo (1995)

Le Van Loc (Cyclo), Tony Leung (Poet) and Tran Nu Yên-Khê (Sister)

Directed by Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya)

Language: Vietnamese

From IMDB: "A young man who struggles through life by earning some money with his bicycle taxi in Ho Chi Minh City until contacted by a group of criminals who introduce him to a world of drugs and crime."

This is one of the few foreign films I've seen where I was happy I did not pay money for the experience. The dialogue was almost non-existent, with many relationships between prominent characters left unexplained. The entire two-hour sequence of events, as the Cyclo wound his way down into the corruption of gang street crime, was like watching a man being kicked in the gut repeatedly (which actually happened to him at one point). I saw no visible reason for this young man or his stunning, ethereal sister to avoid a life of crime because their law-abiding life was so wretched. Thus it was no surprise when they both took to their illegal endeavors with relish and some degree of free-wheeling satisfaction. What, in that life of unimaginable suffering and poverty, did they have to lose?

Because I know so little about life in Vietnam, I was left with a quizzical mirage of images. Is this impoverished experience typical or atypical of modern, urban Vietnam? There were a number of camera poems dedicated to the uneasy merger between poverty (crumbled, destroyed buildings where children scramble for useful trash) and luxury (a near-by high-rise resort for European tourists, complete with swimming pool and tennis court), but I was left without perspective as to the overall place these particular characters held in the larger realm of that nation's society.

The other issue was Tony Leung. He was called The Poet (none of the characters are named), but was he supposed to be Vietnamese? Leung is from Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese, and I think his poetry was in Cantonese, but what was he doing in Ho-Chi-Min City? If he was speaking Vietnamese, it sounded radically different from the language the other characters used. Confusing.

He was a charismatic screen presence, though, all brooding, rumbled, anxious discontent and nose bleeds. The moment when he leaves Sister to an uncertain future with a rich john is particularly moving, set in a nightclub to "Creep" by Radiohead, because he has come to care for her without ever verbalizing his sentiments. The scene has a vertiginous sense of surrealism and claustrophobia and stands out as the only sincerely emotional moment of the film. The rest of the experience was devoted to archetypal suffering. Especially because they remained unnamed, and with frequent montage scenes of other, equally poor people, these characters remained nothing more than emotionally distant representations of an amorphous Vietnamese sub-culture.

Blogger Keven said...

I liked it

15:28  
Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

Tony Leung also played a Chinese man in Vietnam in Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of Marguerite Duras' The Lover. From what I remember of that book -- oh, wretched thing! -- and a few others, there were many Chinese businessmen in French Indochina.

But, a glance at the CIA World Factbook shows the ethnic breakdown of current-day Vietnam at 86.2% Viet and no -- from what I could identify -- Chinese. So, in other words, I don't know what to make of Leung's character either!

18:55  

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