Xich lo(Cyclo)(1995)Directed By Anh Hung Tran
“Cyclo” begins with neo-realist naturalism, as a young man struggles day to day driving his cycle taxi in modern day Saigon, Vietnam. His father has just died, and after working his entire life as a bike-taxi driver, has nothing to leave his children, but the suggestion that they might find something nobler to do with their lives. The young man spends his days navigating the alleys and the side streets for the quickest routes and attempting to avoid collisions with other bike taxi drivers who have divided the city into turfs and gangs, of who can pick up customers where. One day his taxi is stolen, and to repay the taxi’s owner (a local lady crime boss); he has to take on a series of petty crimes to pay the debt. The young man is never given a name; the credits refer to him as “Cyclo”, his sister as “sister” etc. His sister(played by the gorgeous Tran Nu Yen-Khe begins a tenuous relationship with the boss of the gang Youth works for, a silent constantly smoking man called “Poet” played by the always excellent Tony Leung. By relationship I mean he pimps her out to old business men provided they “not touch her”, instead she indulges their foot and urine fetishes, in at first disturbing and then increasingly reflective and resigned scenes. The Poet rarely speaks but we hear his poetry for time to time in voice over, obliquely appearing and disappearing. The first half of the film focuses more on Cyclo getting in over his head with the gang, stealing, transporting drugs, and lighting a rival building on fire with a Molotov cocktail. The second half shows us more of the “Poet” and “the Sister”. Dialog is sparse throughout, but the sister seems to only really exist in relation to the poet, he pimps her out, but not too much. That may be going too far, as we do get a sense that her indulging the fetishists is more amusing and certainly less physically tiring than the work she was doing before.Leung’s apartment becomes a kind of club house for the girls, a paradoxical bordello of innocence. The Poet is corrupt but wants to keep some aspects of his life pure. There are scenes where he is beaten by his father and collapses into sudden helpless boyhood, and a virtuoso and pivotal scene in a nightclub set to Radiohead’s “Creep”, in the best tradition of using pop songs to encapsulate not just moment in time (the 90’s in which the film is set), but the very heart of a character. When Yorke sings “what the hell am I doing here?” it might as well be Leong singing it aloud. As Cyclo becomes more fascinated with the power, attention, and adrenalin rush he is getting from the gang, “Poet” becomes more aloof splitting his time between the three girls he pimps, and he the lady crime boss who he serves as soldier and lover (or whore depending on how you look at it). Vietnamese/French director Anh Hung Tran delicately weaves us in and out of violence and tranquil beauty, near psychedelic explosions of color and poetic reflections, pimps and corpses and children happily at play. I first heard the phrase “poverty porn” used to describe “City Of God”, and though I understand the sentiment, and the reservation of exploiting “third world squalor” for “western entertainment”.I didn’t agree with its designation for “City Of God” and would doubly reject it for “Cyclo”. The story in other hands could easily have become this kind of exotic gangster film, but its cinematic prowess makes every scene unpredictable and fresh, without feeling experimental for it’s own sake. There are many moments when usually after an act of violence a scene of children in a school room or at play is shown. These scenes aren’t just there for contrast, but as an extenuation of each other; Cyclo, the sister, and the Poet, like Rocket and Lil Ze of “City Of God”, are all just kids trying, failing, and struggling to cope with their difficult lives and making them worse. Where Rocket has early life experiences that ward him off the crime life, Cyclo has only his dead father’s failure echoing in his head, driving him on get whatever he can out of life. After he commits his first major crime, we see him covered in filth, as he had to escape the police in a river or tunnel. The escape isn’t fully shown, and we are left with the image of the crime and then the criminal covered in what looks like shit; insects crawling slowly across his lips in a close up. To clean his face he puts it in a fish bowl (his only company in the dilapidated room the Poet forces him to live in), and effectively contaminates the world of the only friend he had. It’s a great visual metaphor for gang violence and corruption and its effect on community life, it just makes everything dirtier and shittier. By the end of the film, Cyclo does not come to his senses, but implodes on himself, and get’s a brief offer to escape the life he bumbled or was forced into (its implied that one of the Lady crime bosses henchman was involved in stealing Cyclo’s taxi in the first place.)The crime queen’s handicapped son, who is the same age as Cyclo, is a kind of mirror image of him throughout the film; financially privileged to his economic struggle, an eternal child to his forced growing-up, the apple of his mother’s eye to the deafening absence of being an orphan. Cyclo’s blue neon painted face at the end is less about psychedelic freak out as it is a desperate desire to escape back to the simplicities of childhood. The fates of the Poet, Cyclo, and the crime mistresses’ son each reach their peak, at the same moment, showing us the product of innocence/idiocy and evil/apathy. In psychological terms this is guilty and reflective Super-ego (poetic Leung) and impulsive childish Id (overgrown man-child son) on two opposite poles of self-destruction, and Ego sandwiched between the two, clinging to a faint possibility of hope/rationality. “Cyclo” is compulsively watchable and despite its experimentation's easily accessible. The films score reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock film, and is responsible in large to the films strange atmosphere, as if a horror film lurks just beneath the surface at all times, waiting to escape. In a way the ominous sound-scape is fitting, as there is a horror waiting to devour the characters, and it is their lives. “Cyclo’s” cinematic and aesthetic techniques amount to nothing less than incredibly solid and visually breathtaking storytelling, that elevates it’s well-worn concept a step above the rest.