Wednesday 18 June 2008

Cyclo (1995)

A cyclo is a three wheeled Vietamese bicycle taxi and Cyclo in our film (we never hear another name) rides one of these for a living. It's a hard life and it doesn't pay very much but it's work. Maybe that's why lead actor Le Van Loc doesn't seem to have a lot of charisma in the early scenes: he's knackered all the time. His parents are dead and the rest of the family works: his elderly grandfather repairs tyres, his elder delivers water to the market and his much younger sister shines shoes. Yet they're still notably poor and looking for a way out of poverty. Then again so is everyone else, it seems. There are commonalities running throughout this film, especially the opening: everyone works hard but doesn't earn much and everything is really crowded.

There's a great sequence of shots sped up beyond normal speed that begin with a long shot of a high rise building. It's dark but all the rooms are lit and it looks like a wall of TV screens. I wasn't so keen on the editing though and some of the hand held camerawork, though there are many effective and interesting approaches to camera setups, including a staccato strobe shot at a nightclub, a passenger who looks like he's praying to God but is really holding a sheet of glass, a vertical shot of Cyclo that looks like it's horizontal and another one vice versa, and a few great uses for a fishtank. There's one especially surreal sequence with an American helicopter falling off a truck going round a roundabout.

Anyway life wasn't good for Cyclo to start with but then a group of young thugs beat him up, steal his cyclo and leave him curled up in the middle of the road. If I understood the story right, because this is a little fragmented, he works for a boss lady and her partner who suck him into the underbelly of their work, through subterfuge. They organise the theft of his cyclo then have him work off the cost running odd jobs like starting arson attacks against the competition. They also have him hidden away while they whore his sister out on fetish duty.

This is a fascinating film lent massive flavour from the cinematography and claustrophobia of the film, which has Hanoi (or Ho Chi Minh City) as a supporting character. While the editing and the way the story is laid out makes it notably fragmented and hard to follow, with long scenes that can only be described as poetry, and the lack of a name for anyone in the entire story doesn't help, the character of the city seeps through the film. It's a dark underbelly but it's lush and we feel the colours, textures, sounds, tones, fragrances of the city.

These characters are living and dying and we're right along with them, sucked into the screen. It's a vampiric picture in that respect, subtly throwing in extreme images of violence and perversion, but almost never treating them like they were extreme. The implication is that they're everyday occurrences and are treated as such and no more. The result is startling but amazingly not for the reasons that would make most films startling. In many ways it's the mundane that that amazes rather than the extreme. There's a long crane shot at the end that tells us so much without words. It's an amazing film, in strong parts amazing for not being amazing for what we'd expect to be amazing.

Le Van Loc is subtle in the lead. I get the impression that he's not really an actor and he was hired for the realism he could bring to the role. That's backed up by this being his only film credit. The other male lead is Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a year after Chungking Express and far enough into his career for him to be able to pick interesting roles. I've seen him in quite a few truly awesome roles, from Days of Being Wild to Hard Boiled to Infernal Affairs, and this is a solid addition to a fascinating career of often brooding introspection. I still have a number of key ones left to find, including a number of Wong Kar Wai movies that are high on my list.

The female lead as Cyclo's sister is Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who I've never heard of but who promises much with a versatile performance. She came to this from a major film made two years earlier, The Scent of Green Papaya, made by the same writer/director as Cyclo, Anh Hung Tran. It had enough international attention to be Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but it lost out amongst strong Asian competition including Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, to a Spanish comedy called Belle Epoque. Tran Nu Yen-Khe (I have no idea which is the first or last name) would be back working for Anh Hung Tran (ditto) in another highly regarded film, 2000's The Vertical Ray of the Sun.

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