Cyclo is the second movie by Tran Ahn Hung, who had previously made a beautiful slideshow of a French soundstage called Scent of Green Papaya. This time, the French director, his wife, and his music composer actually return to Vietnam, the land of their birth, to portray a sensual and somewhat impressionistic slice of misery about the lives of two siblings as they enter the criminal world.
The version on the…uh…internet…is around 123-minutes long and the DVD case from my library system also says that it is 123-minutes long, but the DVD version itself is around 129-minutes long. I think that it is just a matter of speed as opposed to cut scenes.
This movie focuses on three characters without names: Cyclo, Sister, and Poet. Cyclo ferries people around in a pedicab, Sister is his older sister, and Poet recites poetry…sometimes. Cyclo and Sister live with their grandfather and younger sister, as their parents are both dead.. Cyclo is in this line of work in order to help provide for his family, but part of the money goes to paying off rent of the pedicab to his “Boss Lady”. His father was killed in an accident while driving the pedicab, so Cyclo has inherited the job and the debt, despite his father’s hope that he would find better work. The city streets are tough and Cyclo must be careful to avoid straying into the territory of rival pedicab drivers. His co-workers have developed a rather dark sense of humor regarding their job, figuring that it will kill them too. That or a venereal disease. Meanwhile, Sister delivers water, the little sister (a child) shines shoes at the restaurant, and their grandfather pumps tires. None of these jobs are ideal.
One day, Cyclo’s pedicab gets stolen by a group of thieves who had most likely been targeting him. When he runs after them, they beat him up right there on the street. No one steps in to stop them. No one even stops. Boss Lady, who dotes on her mentally handicapped son, has pretty much no sympathy for Cyclo’s plight. It turns out that the people who stole his pedicab actually work for the Boss Lady. It is too late for him to do much about it as she has assigned him to another gang, led by Poet. They pretty much trap him in an apartment while waiting for further instructions. While he technically can leave the apartment at any time, he still owes Boss Lady for the stolen pedicab. It is likely that she herself had it stolen from him, but what would be the point in bringing that up? So, he is trapped, let out only to buy food and do dirty work for Boss Lady and the gang. It is not long before he sinks further into the world of crime, sometimes by force, but sometimes voluntarily.
Sister goes to Poet’s office, probably assigned by Boss Lady to be a prostitute after the cyclo theft. The two seem to know each other already, but it is unclear how or for how long. Perhaps out of respect towards her tearful reluctance to take part in all of this, and towards her most likely being a virgin, Poet restricts her clientele to those with mild (but creepy) fetishes, like pee watchers and foot powderers. Poet and Sister form sort of a relationship and he even takes her to visit his parents. His mother seems to like her, while his father is more concerned with beating him senseless, enraged at his line of work and his bringing one of his prostitutes home. Poet, ruthless and stoic as he may be, still has elements of fragility. Meanwhile, though Sister cries during her first session, she becomes more comfortable (or numbed and better at masking her misery) later on. She also begins to bond with Poet’s other two prostitutes.
Poet watches as Cyclo and Sister learn to develop thicker skin in order to survive. As the siblings gradually shed their innocence, he slowly beings to unravel. It is implied that he refuses to have sex with Sister, but has little reservations about doing so with his other prostitutes. He also sleeps with Boss Lady. Poet is extremely upset when Cyclo asks to officially join the gang. Is he seeing part of his own past in what they are going through? Was he also an innocent once, forced and seduced into the life of a gangster? Is he revisiting the pain of that loss? What has this city done to these two to take them down their paths? What has he done to them to turn them into what they are becoming? He might be able to slow down their descent a little, but he cannot stop them, let alone turn them around. It actually makes him a little sick.
Technically, this is not entirely a Vietnamese film. The director left for France at 12-years-old (around the time that Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City) and much of the crew is French. Actually, there were not many Vietnamese movies made at the time aside from government propaganda, of which this is definitely not. Who in the government would want to show the capital city full of poverty, underground economies, filth, and physical reminders of a traumatic war from 20 years ago? The first privately released Vietnamese film would be an awful 2004 comedy about the illicit fashion industry called Long Legged- Girls. I guess that they had to start somewhere, but I much prefer this film.
It is notable that Poet is played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who doesn’t know a lick of Vietnamese and probably had to learn all of his lines phonetically. Most of his lines are the poems that he recites in voiceovers. I know that there are (or had been before the Communist Takeover) a lot of ethnically Chinese people living in Vietnam, but Poet does not really come across as being one of those people. The only reason I can think of for him to be in this movie, aside from him being excellent in the role, is that he was famous and maybe the film needed a hook for investors.
There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) sense of cheeky irony that keeps the movie from being too depressing. Sometimes it is the plot, but sometimes it is simply a jump cut between scenes. It also helps that the characters tend to bottle up their own emotions for the most part, living this strange life as being the only life that there is for them. That does, however, make it more notable when they do let their true feelings show, and when they acknowledge (though maybe not verbally) that the life for them is not what anyone should have.
The movie appears to be steeped in matter-of-fact realism at first, showing how the working poor and just-plain-poor make their living and spend their time. There are signs, however, of strangeness, even early on. There is a montage around fifteen minutes in that shows people at home going about their daily lives, but some of the shots show people just looking near the camera or right into it. It gives the sense that the viewer is part of a group of strangers. There is also this dance party where everyone seems to be dancing to this really fast and upbeat song, when the song playing is a slow and angry hard rock song. The movie occasionally dips into near-surrealism as the characters descend further and further, though it never actually strays into the fantastical. The style of the film can be fairly hands-off at times and in-your-face at others. The musical score is sort of that early 20th Century modernism, which can be irritating, but helps to establish the tone. All of this goes off the deep end during the final half-hour, as the plot itself slows down to dwell upon the inevitable consequences (or lack thereof) of certain actions.
Warning, there are a few of scenes with flashing or flickering lights. I myself do not suffer from epilepsy, but the last one went on for a quite a bit of time and did make me feel a little uncomfortable. There is also one scene at a pig-slaughtering plant. I was not warned, but now you are. The scene of pig-killing is brief, but totally unprompted and is disturbing, regardless of whether it is real. And…uh…goldfish…
Also be warned, there is a scene involving the song “Creep” by Radiohead, just in case you hate that song. Yes, apparently Radiohead was well known in Vietnam (or at least amongst ethnic Vietnamese in France) way back in 1994. There have been discussions over whether this scene was effective or too on-the-nose. Personally, I think that it is effective, though I like both Radiohead and even that overplayed song.
This seems to be a movie about choices and consequences in a place where the choices are far from ideal and consequences are often unfair. It is about people falling, taking others with them, and holding onto others who are falling. Sometimes, it seems as if the characters do not believe that there is a way out, or have little concept of there being a way out. However, I grew quite fond of these characters, and truly hoped that at least most of them could free themselves from the vicious cycle. Or, in this case, the vicious cyclo.
WTF ASIA 24: Let the Bullets Fly (China: 2010, Approx. 132 minutes)
WTF ASIA 25: Nameless Gangster: The Rules of TIme (South Korea: 2012, Approx. 134 minutes)
Free on Amazon Prime.