Cyclo is the second feature by Tran Anh Hung, who impressed many with his debut, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993). I was told, before seeing it, that Cyclo was a little like a Leos Carax film. That's true; it also resembles an Abel Ferrara low-life movie such as Bad Lieutenant (1992), with its mysterious, abrupt plotting, and its endless scenes of people getting wasted in clubs under strobe lights, thrashing about to harsh, booming music.
However, the setting here is not New York but Saigon. If this film holds a grim fascination at times, that's because it has an almost sensationalist, tabloid-exposé feel: ‘Here’s what Saigon has sunk to today!’
But I couldn't get into Cyclo at all; for me, neither of the extremes that in concert create the grunge effect in cinema work well or sit right here.
First, grunge’s documentary side. The real, indeed hyperreal, gritty side about life in contemporary Saigon (centred on cyclo driving work), comes over like some overwrought, apocalyptic fantasy of Hell.
I always suspect the veracity of gloom-and-doom portraits that cast their men and women in the same old binary gender roles: all the men are glamorous gangsters, dreamers and fast-movers, while the women are mothers, prostitutes and mousy, abused victims. It’s like some elegant diagram of a lost, hopeless world, perfectly determined and grid-like – a bit reminiscent of Fassbinder or Mike Leigh at their worst.
The second, opposite extreme side to grunge is the poetic stuff. Cyclo works over-hard to make every single image beautiful in a pronounced, theatrical, elongated way (very close at moments to Wong Kar-wai as well as Carax) – even when what we are seeing is violence, death, vomiting, asphyxiation, and so on. Tran gives us faces plunging into water at askew angles in slow-motion; people painting themselves all blue or yellow; and a cool, glamorous gangster (Tony Leung as “the poet”!) moving through the street-level passageways of this Hell like an Angel of Death.
Cyclo is deadening in its repetitions. It just keeps re-posing its duality of stinking Hell and poetic Love. But neither this love or this poetry, this all-pervasive beauty, can ever bring any redemption to the characters … let alone any transformation into their social world.
In the end, all that Cyclo can give us are relentlessly vivid aesthetic sensations – of colour, music and blank verse poetry – that point to another, better world. However, the bridge to this world is absolutely nowhere in sight; and so we collapse back down to street level. And at street level, as Bob Dylan once put it in an immortal grunge moment: everyone not busy being born is busy dying.
© Adrian Martin November 1996