(1995)4.5Jonathan CrowAbandoning the gentle minimalism of his The Scent of Green Papayas, director Tran Anh Hung creates a savage, hallucinatory portrait of Vietnam's convulsive modernization seen through the eyes of a nameless 18-year-old cyclo driver. Set in the swelter and tumult of Ho Chi Minh City, the film deftly sets up the grinding poverty and mind-numbing routine endured by the protagonist, his older sister (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director's wife), his younger sister, and his grandfather. Tran's hand-held camera and gritty subject matter make the film's first twenty minutes feel like a documentary. When the protagonist's cyclo gets stolen, Tran is clearly nodding toward Vittorio DeSica's Italian Neo-Realist classic Bicycle Thief (1948). From there, however, the film boldly veers off into uncharted cinematic territory, unfolding as both a literal, documentary-like presentation of modern Vietnam and a harrowing, surreal depiction of its collective state of mind. Though the film makes frequent use of traditional Vietnamese poems and folk songs, they are juxtaposed with incongruous shots of the such Western icons as Evian bottles, an overturned American helicopter, and, most jarringly, a Radiohead song that blasts away during a pivotal scene. In Tran's eyes, Vietnam's spasmodic opening to capitalism and the West is rendered uncanny and threatening. Cyclo is at the same time one of a growing number of films -- such as Farewell, My Concubine (1993) and The Pillow Book (1996) -- of transnational origins. Though the director and much of the cast were from Vietnam, the crew and funding hailed from France and the film's sole name actor, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, was from Hong Kong (and reportedly did not speak Vietnamese). Stylistically, Cyclo is more informed by art house films of Europe and the Americas than by Vietnamese mainstream cinema. Tran makes constant references to such films as Bicycle Thief, Pierrot le Fou, Reservoir Dogs, and Hour of the Furnaces. At the same time, Ton That Tiet's discordant score recalls legendary Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. Brutal yet visually striking, Cyclo is a visionary work that brilliantly blurs genres and national boundaries, riveting audiences with its unforgettable images.
A "cyclo" is a bicycle-drawn taxi similar to a rickshaw, and, in this story, the nickname of an 18-year-old boy trying to scrape together a living in the desperate poverty of Ho Chi Mihn City. Cyclo lives with his grandfather (Le Kinh Huy) and two sisters (Tran Nu Yen-Khe and Pham Ngoc Lieu), and drives his taxi for a bitter woman (Nhu Quynh Nguyen) who devotes most of her time to her mentally unstable son (Bjuhoang Huy). When the pedal-cab is stolen, Cyclo is forced into a life of crime to repay the debt and falls in with a group of petty thugs led by a self-styled poet (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). What Cyclo doesn't know at first is that the poet is also a pimp, and he's been using his romantic wiles to lure Cyclo's older sister into a career as a prostitute. Cyclo was directed by Tran Anh Hung, whose breakthrough film was the acclaimed drama The Scent of Green Papaya.