It's the middle film in Anh Dung Tran's Vietnam trilogy, between The Scent of Green Papaya
and The Vertical Ray of the Sun
. Those were beautiful, elegant and had very little in the way of plot or dialogue. I quite liked them, but they're like an exercise in exquisite, seductive boredom.
Cyclo I'd been hoping would be different, though, because it has street gangs, prostitution and killings. Nope, my bad. Despite its subject matter, it's just like the other two. To my surprise I actually liked it the least out of any of them, because when the story's basically just watching people do nothing for two hours, at least Anh Dung Tran's style seems appropriate and aesthetically satisfying. Here though there's a clash. Anh Dung Tran is putting all his beautiful style into the cause of portraying an ugly world and the results don't satisfy as one thing or the other. I won't call the film a failure, but I didn't get any real pleasure from it.
What's good about the movie? After all, it's as highly acclaimed as all of Anh Dung Tran's films and it won the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice International Film Festival. Personally I'd say it achieves the following:
(a) it shows poor Vietnamese street life without resorting to poverty porn. It captures their dignity, with for instance our protagonist's grandfather being reluctant to earn money from a set of scales they've acquired because they're not the rightful owners. When Le Van Loc and especially Tran Nu Yen-Khe fall into doing things they shouldn't, their decisions have weight.
(b) seeing this vibrant material being portrayed in such an allusive, distant style isn't without interest. For a start, I wouldn't say it's any less realistic than the in-your-face approach we're used to. It's also making you work harder than most films do, because you're not being spoon-fed and if you ever stop paying full attention, you'll never know what you missed. After all, there is a plot. It's just proceeding under the surface, in a subterranean fashion.
(c) the film's full of subtle meanings and internal references, if you're prepared to look out for them. The two fat goldfish are a metaphor (c.f. also the scene of people popping their mouths in the rain), complete with a piscine nasty ending. You won't miss it. That's one seriously unhappy goldfish. Note also the significance of the songs, plus throwaway yet crucial resonances like "why are you covered in paint?" Note the way Anh Dung Tran draws our attention to sex early in the film without appearing to do so, for instance with the employer lady's cigarette and the discussion of VD-like symptoms among the cyclo riders. (A cyclo is like a Vietnamese rickshaw, except that the customer's seat is at the front.) Note the way that Le Van Loc and Tran Nu Yen-Khe's stories intersect without meeting, thus underlining each other. Being forced to drink water becomes a rite of initiation for both of them, for instance.
(d) the film's not afraid to have extreme or violent things happen when it wants. Mr Lullaby is memorable, for instance, as are random incidents like a helicopter coming down out of nowhere. There is blood.
(e) the acting is true to itself. These aren't normal performances, mind you. The film has relatively little dialogue, although it doesn't mind the occasional monologue from time to time, and its actors are deliberately impassive, almost as if they were the director's puppets. This is even true of the movie's unexpected big name: Tony Leung Chiu Wai of lots of Hong Kong films, e.g. Tokyo Raiders or Kar Wai Wong's Day of Being Wild trilogy. It's another distancing effect, but it adds both to the characters' dignity and the film's beauty. Tran Nu Yen-Khe gets away with it, partly because she's gorgeous, although Le Van Loc at first was so unreadable that he barely seemed human. He actually has a big toothy grin, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that Grinning Loc and Stone-Faced Loc were the same person.
Incidentally, you'll recognise some of the cast from Anh Dung Tran's other films. Tran Nu Yen-Khe is the most obvious, being his wife and famous for acting in almost everything he does, but Nhu Quynh Nguyen and Doan Viet Ha returned as well in The Vertical Ray of the Sun
It also occurs to me that Tran's vision of Vietnam is romantic and in some ways passionately childlike. This certainly isn't to to call him childish and I'm in no way trying to denigrate his conscious control of his work as a writer/director, but this is after all a man who was born in Vietnam and emigrated to France when he was twelve. Effectively it's his childhood. It might thus make a certain amount of sense that his films about his home country show a world where meaning is subtle and implicit, never stated out loud but instead something to be teased out and guessed. Everything you see is gorgeous and observed in vivid detail, all the important things happen offscreen and one's left with the impression of dreamlike snapshots whose meaning can't quite be grasped.
I look forward to comparing this with his films set in other countries (Hong Kong, the Philippines, America and Japan). I'll probably find that I've been talking out of my backside, but what the hell.
There's a fair bit to excavate from this one, if you're prepared to put in the work. However at the same time I can't say I particularly liked it. It's too distant; too hard to warm to. Its discordance of style and content makes it difficult to embrace, either for its artistic qualities or for the simple drama of people in terrible circumstances. However I like the fact that Tran's doing something different, since I wouldn't want him to appear to descend into self-plagiarism and I think one could lose patience fast with a career built on nothing but films like The Scent of Green Papaya
and The Vertical Ray of the Sun
. This would be a shame, since he's a fascinating filmmaker.