Every bustling city has a forgotten class of people, those that work behind the scenes keeping the machine running. These are also the people that the normal denizens don’t see and don’t want to see. I’m talking about laborers and menial service providers like cab drivers, street cleaners and dry goods loaders. These are the people you only see if you look down the back alleys during the day, the kind that generally live in poverty, often struggling with more than one job to get by. The situation is more graphic and obvious in developing countries, where poverty and privilege co-exist out in the open because the divide is not as large as in the West. The plights of these ‘invisible’ people have been given the film treatment as early as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and as recently as Jim Sheridan’s “In America”. In-between those two movies, there is 1995’s “Cyclo.”
Set in the bustling and mean streets of modern day Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese “Cyclo” is a slice of life film about a poor teenage pedicab driver (aka a cyclo, played by the suitably emaciated looking Le Van Loc) as poverty and bad luck pushes him down the dark path of organized crime. He struggles to eek out a living for his two sisters and grandfather, using a pedicab rented from the local Madame at usurious rates. When the Madame has the cyclo cab stolen in order to rent it back to him at even higher rates, she points the cyclo over to her chief enforcer, a brooding, silent brute known only as The Poet (Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, “Infernal Affairs”). Under The Poet’s guidance, the cyclo becomes involved in the seedy underbelly of Ho Chi Minh City’s organized crime racket, starting small by destroying rice shipments and rapidly graduating to murder and drug trafficking.
“Cyclo” uses parallel stories to follow the cyclo, the cyclo’s virginal older sister’s love for The Poet (despite the fact that he’s pimping her out), and the Madame’s struggle to come to terms with her retarded son. While the conceit used to introduce the main protagonist is lifted directly from De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” director Tran Anh Hung casts the characters in his own metropolitan hell. The film is about cycles of despair, a world where there is no escape from poverty. Sons follow their father’s footsteps because the idea of anything better is alien. This is a path that has been tread before, but Hung makes it seem new by spreading his story out over several interesting characters and then deftly bringing them together through very matter-of-fact circumstances.
The stories are a bit too threadbare to stand on their own, but when put together against the larger backdrop of the unforgiving machine that is the city, it all works quite well. The picture of life in the underbelly of society that Hung presents is one of people being beaten down by the machine. Daily hardships that would seem oppressively unyielding to most of us are just the cost of getting by to the underclass, and they accept it as such. Life is reduced to a routine series of humiliations that the people must let roll off their backs if they wish to survive till the next morning.
The film is full of moments of unspoken ritual, and nihilistic fatalism permeates every aspect of life in “Cyclo”. Even the most banal activities become weighted with significance as every moment of each character’s waking life is enslaved to the practical demands of survival. Hung draws poignant parallels between water and blood, life and death, and suffering and renewal. All feature prominently in the day-to-day toils of the struggling poor. Life and death take on more resonance for the underclass because it is an undeniable fact that some must die in order for others to live. It’s ugly, but it’s also reality shown in sometimes gruesome detail.
The final denouement unabashedly expresses the hopelessness of life trapped in the city. The film is all sound and fury, relying on the neon lights, dusty streets, noisy traffic and odd music to keep going. In those respects, the film succeeds. The plight of the main character is a bit too depressing and fatalistic for its own good, so the levity provided by the eclectic visuals is a welcome respite; they also help to keep the viewer’s attention when the narrative begins to wander.
While the stories of the main characters are handled well enough, the real attraction of “Cyclo” is the style and feel of the film. Hung shows a sure hand with the camera, composing the film as an esoteric mix of energetic handheld movements and beautifully languid still frames. Vividly capturing the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City’s streets — a dirty, dilapidated waking nightmare teeming with humanity — Hung manages to find images of profound beauty hidden in the idyllic countryside, as well as in the deepest slums of the city.
Anh Hung Tran (director) / N.T. Binh, Anh Hung Tran (screenplay)
CAST: Le Van Loc …. Cyclo
Tony Leung Chiu Wai …. Poet
Tran Nu YÃªn-KhÃª …. Sister
Nhu Quynh Nguyen …. Madam