Here, you can view a short annotated clip from Tran Anh Hung’s surreal thriller, Cyclo.  The clip itself is a first draft and shows, among other things, how important it is to revise and improve one’s own editing and commentary.



Set in 1990s Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City), Cyclo examines the options available to a young pedicab driver, the unnamed title character.  Orphaned and living with his grandfather and two sisters, the young cyclo ekes out a living until his vehicle is stolen by a gangster.  Desperate to earn the money necessary to repay his matronly boss, the cyclo asks to join the gang.  His downward spiral into scenes of torture and violence parallels his older sister’s entry into prostitution at the hands of her boyfriend, a depressive but poetic pimp.  The middle of the film alternates between scenes of the sister’s sexual humiliation and the brother’s possible conversion into a hired killer.  The film reaches its climax on the evening of the Tet (New Year’s) celebration.  Vivid images of holiday bonfires and fireworks unite the threads of the plot, and the film concludes with the newly cleansed family pedaling once again through the city.


Stylistically, Cyclo begins in an observational mood, making allusions to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief as well as urban documentaries.  In “Vietnamese Cinema:  First Views,” John Charlot describes documentary as a central force in Vietnamese cinema, praising in particular Tran Van Thuy’s Hanoi Through Whose Eyes? (1983) as a masterful poetic and symbolic interpretation of the city film.[1]  Like Hanoi Through Whose Eyes?, Cyclo includes several folk songs and voiceovers as well as numerous street scenes.  However, the observational mood of the film’s opening is soon disrupted by cinema verité-style camera movements, numerous jump cuts, and moments of strong visual contrast.  Long tracking shots also suggest the influence of French New Wave cinema, and allusions to classics of that style such as Jean-Luc Godard’s traffic jam in Weekend (1967).

As the film moves deeper into the night-time and nightmare worlds of prostitution and gangland torture, the intimate voiceovers that we hear in the opening sequences are silenced.  Long quiet passages depicting the siblings’ adventures allow the viewer plenty of time to reflect on her disturbing voyeuristic complicity with the eroticism and violence seen on screen.  The observational documentary becomes self-consciously shocking.  This modernist sensibility escalates when the film turns to intense surrealistic imagery involving eyes and razors and clearly influenced by Bunuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou (1929).  Intercut with recitations in the voice of Hong Kong action hero and Cannes’ Best Actor winner (2000) Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (who plays the poetic pimp), these color-saturated sequences convey an interpretation of poverty that replaces propagandistic or overtly political commentary with aesthetic discomfort.

Cyclo has reportedly not yet been screened in Vietnam,[2] although it makes no overt criticisms of state policy (apart from a brief scene early in the film in which the cyclo applies for a loan).  However, the film’s fascination with criminality and its hallucinogenic extremity of sensation create a world where conscious public efforts to endorse social goods seem almost irrelevant.  Perhaps this sensibility, combined with the more conventionally social realist contrast between haves and have-nots that appears in the final scene, accounts for its cool official reception in Vietnam.

Western critics have admired Cyclo, however.  It won a Golden Lion and the FIPRESCI prize at the Venice Film Festival and two more at the Ghent Festival.  The film’s modernist visual rhetoric, together with its focus on the sensory rather than political experience of poverty, has struck some reviewers as unwieldy, esoteric, and perhaps too uncommunicative.[3]  While describing the film as an uncompromising examination of wealth and poverty, some looked for a more explicitly editorial stance.

A direct statement of political position would be out of place in this film, though.  Tran uses aesthetic overloading and strong emotions to create a sensory experience of metropolitan life in the developing world.  In the end, it is the distance between the sensibility of the international festival-going audience and the world the film portrays that we feel, self-consciously, as commentary.



[1] John Charlot, “Vietnamese Cinema:  First Views” in Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema.  Ed Wimal Dissanayake. (Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1994):  105-140.


[3] Janet Maslin, “A Vietnamese Taxi Driver and His Unworldly Sister.”  New York Times (October 12, 1995).

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