"The year of the pig begins today. I wish you peace, health, and a normal life, like everyone else."—Thug
Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1995 Venice Film Festival, director Tran Anh Hung's (The Scent of Green Papaya) film follows a young cyclo (bicycle cab) driver (Le Van Loc) on his poverty-driven descent into criminality in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City. The boy's struggles to scratch out a living for his two sisters and grandfather in the mean streets of the city lead to petty crime on behalf of a mysterious Madame (Nguyen Nhu Quynh, The Vertical Ray of the Sun) from whom he rents his cyclo. In order to draw him more deeply into her world, the lady has her thugs steal his cab, forcing him into increasingly dangerous and violent forms of crimes in order to survive and to repay his debt to her. Meanwhile, the boy's sister (Tran Nu Yên-Khê, The Scent of Green Papaya) falls in love with the wistful poet (Tony Leung, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love) who leads the Madame's thugs, and is drawn into his world of prostitution. As the film progresses, the siblings begin to lose all sense of their own identities as they careen on separate but equally entropic paths.
Cyclo is a slow-goer, but the pace is perfect for the material. Tran's Vietnam is a visually lush swirl of gritty reality and in-your-face surrealism, a sort of hyper-detailed dreamscape. He and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (The Scent of Green Papaya, The Loss of Sexual Innocence) allow their camera to linger on Ho Chi Minh City—dirty, dilapidated, teeming with humanity, a waking nightmare that somehow offers shades of profound underlying beauty when we're made to fix our eyes on it. The movie is about cycles of desperation, a world in which there is no escape from circumstance, from poverty. Sons follow in the footsteps of their fathers because a better life isn't attainable. It's a well-worn theme, but Tran makes it work by unfurling it in pieces among a large group of characters, adding lyrical touches to one narrative thread that answer questions posed in others. Viewed in isolation, the tales that make up Cyclo are disturbingly ambiguous. They're thrown in starker relief, however, by their context with one another. Execution is everything when skirting cliché, and Tran proves himself a master of observational detail and the careful dilating of time.
Long passages of Tran's film approach pure cinema, as in the sleepy morning scene in which we learn Leung's poet is a pimp. Two of his prostitutes arrive at his apartment and the three go through the delicate but well-rehearsed ritual of dividing the money the girls earned the previous night. The girls feign casual activity, leave the money in a conspicuous place without acknowledging a business transaction is occurring, linger in the apartment a bit, then leave. There is almost no dialogue. The dramatic payoff comes moments later when the cyclo driver's sister arrives, smitten with the poet, weeping, ready to accept a fate we understand only because we've just seen the other two girls. The film is full of these moments of unarticulated ritual, expressing the nihilistic fatalism at the core of things. Even the most banal activities become weighted with significance because every moment of each character's waking life is slave to survival's practical demands. Water and blood—and their resonant connections to life and death, purity and contamination, suffering and renewal, exploitation and survival—feature prominently in the baroque day-to-day rituals of the struggling poor in Tran's Ho Chi Minh City. Suffering and death, both animal and human, is an accepted part of the city's rhythms. Some must die in order to feed (both gastronomically and economically) those who go on living. It's an ugly but undeniable reality shown in sometimes gruesome (particularly for animal lovers) detail.
The 1.85:1 widescreen photography is often stunningly beautiful, the slower passages taking on the sumptuous effect of a series of perfectly framed still lifes and candid shots of thrumming humanity in all its simultaneous glory and depravity. New Yorker Films' DVD presentation is solid, reproducing Tran's and Delhomme's wildly divergent use of stylized color timing in fine detail from a clean source. The Dolby Stereo soundtrack (Vietnamese with optional English subtitles) isn't particularly dynamic, but it's not unduly cramped or flat either. It's a mostly quiet film, but Tiêt Tôn-Thât's abstract modernist jazz and orchestral score is given short shrift by the two-channel mix. Immersing the viewer in the eerie splendor of that music, putting sound and image on equal footing, would've greatly heightened an already wrenching, unnerving experience.
A theatrical trailer is the only supplement offered on the disc.
Cyclo is a lyrical, visually powerful meditation on the state of modern-day Vietnam. Don't be frightened away by its easy pace and intentional ambiguity. It's well worth two hours of your time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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