Like the pedal-powered bicycle-taxi from which the film draws it name, “Cyclo” (Xich Lo) trundles, by turns fast and slow, through the deadly, chaotic streets of Saigon. After his Oscar-nominated debut “The Scent of Green Papaya” it might have been easy for director Tran Anh Hung to have continued in the same softly-focused vein, but he clearly had far more radical plans for the follow up.
While Papaya is a slow, meditative film set in colonial Hanoi but shot on a sound-stage in France, “Cyclo” is all seedy urban grit, as it howls across the screen in a whirl of gangs, blood and violent sex, all shot on location under the bright white heat of Saigon in the early nineties.
The opening credits, reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” follow the film’s forlorn protagonist and his barely roadworthy steed through the sprawling visceral disorder that is Saigon traffic. The sequence beautifully illustrates the insignificance of a single life amidst the vast cacophony of the city, whilst the decision of Tran to eschew expansive or wide-angle shots creates both the claustrophobia of city life and the spatial trappings of poverty.
Though set in the early nineties, if it were not for the inspired addition of Radiohead to the soundtrack and the subtle suggestion of a heroin-chic aesthetic, one would be forgiven for thinking the time period is much earlier – given the city’s unrecognizable appearance compared to the present day. The open wounds of the French and American wars permeate the narrative, with characters embodying the many faces of the city’s trauma. Here, Saigon is caught in a spasm as the new lacerates the old and traditional ways of life cling obstinately to tenement pavements, refusing to be displaced by the ceaseless march of progress.
Somewhat prophetically, one of the last shots captures the construction of a new, now so ubiquitous, skyscraper.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is outstanding as a troubled poet-gangster battling with his latent sense of morality as he broods like James Dean through a haze of whisky and cigarette smoke.
“Cyclo” deals with gangs, violence and Saigon’s urban underclass, but it by no means a film that glamorizes poverty. From beginning to end, the narrative is a ballad to the harshness of living hand-to-mouth, the unforgiving hardship of labor and the horror of Saigon’s clandestine criminal underbelly. Its themes are dark and complex at every turn, be they perversely erotic as when one woman is forced to urinate on herself for a man’s pleasure, or sickly violent as when a boy’s throat is slit while his killer sings him a lullaby in a scene that would make Tarantino proud.
The film follows a cyclo driver (Le Van Loc) and his journey from crippling labor to gradual submersion into gang-culture. This bleak, brutish picture laced with blood, sex, sweat, urine and paint is both cinematically brilliant and abjectly horrific. Each and every moment of tragedy allows no distance for objectivity with which to find solace; it remains inescapably personal, undeniably human.
As well as a stand-out performance from the protagonist, Nhu Quynh is mesmerizingly complex in her portrayal of a crime-lord torn apart by trauma and hardened by life’s cruelty. Likewise, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is outstanding as a troubled poet-gangster battling with his latent sense of morality as he broods like James Dean through a haze of whisky and cigarette smoke.
Despite the harshness of much of its action, “Cyclo” is rarely bereft of poetic tenderness. Romance and kindness still manage to find space to appear in the roughness of its contours, albeit briefly and often to an ominous end. The film avoids binary representation and lazy characterisation, with each of the prominently featured characters woven with complex threads of savagery and insecurity, empathy and callousness. The only arguable exception is the protagonist’s sister (Tran Nu Yen Khe) who, at times, comes across as slightly one-dimensional with an innocence that borders on quaint.
Some viewers may also find the long stylized soliloquies that punctuate the action a little lengthy, sentimental even, though they undoubtedly add to the stylized beauty of the work and at times bring an almost Shakespearian grandeur to the film’s epic sweep. “Cyclo” is a fiercely innovative and lyrical work, which at time borders on the avant-garde. Those willing to try to digest its dark challenges and multiple layers of complexity will be richly rewarded with a haunting film that writhes and dazzles under the hot Saigon sun.