CYCLO (Xich lo)
Directed by Tran Anh-hung (1995)
In Vietnam, a cyclo is both the driver of a bicycle taxi and a name given to the taxi itself. In Tran Anh Hung's 1995 film Cyclo, the cyclo driver is a nave 18-year old (Le Van Loc) whose innocence is corrupted by the choices he is compelled to make to escape the circle of grinding poverty. Cyclo is far removed from the director's introspective and contemplative dramas (Scent of Green Papaya, Vertical Ray of the Sun) that preceded and followed it. In Cyclo, Tran assaults our senses with the churning swirl of colors and sounds of Ho Chi Minh City, capturing the vibrations of the city with its street markets, pavement cafes, sidewalk vendors, and choking traffic. He also shows the underbelly of the city: its violence, flesh for hire, and atmosphere of poverty, dirt, and decay. While the violence is graphic and unsettling, it is not exploitative and without the glamour associated with gangster films. Cyclo has little dialogue, mostly gestures and silences, and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's focus on the underlying beauty of the city gives the film a lyricism that renders the violence ambiguous.
Cyclo has lost both parents and lives in near poverty with his grandfather (Le Kinh Huy), who continues to work fixing bicycle tires despite his failing health. His younger sister (Phan Ngoc Lieu) earns a living by shining shoes outside of restaurants and the older sister (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) works as a cook and delivery person. Cyclo's father was also a pedicab driver but was killed when he was hit by a truck. Cyclo's boss (Nguyen Nhu) is known only as the Boss Lady (none of the characters in the film are named) who leads a criminal operation while taking care of her retarded son (Bjuhoang Huy). When Cyclo's bicycle is stolen by a rival gang, the young man is recruited by the Boss lady and her associate, The Poet (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a small-time hoodlum and pimp, to work off his debt.
The Poet is involved with robberies, sabotage, drug trafficking, and prostitution and is no stranger to homicide. He is strangely sympathetic to Cyclo, however, and seems to share with him the common longing for an absent father as revealed in the poetry he reads to him. Cyclo asks to join his gang but, in response, is forced to witness a mobster singing lullabies while he knifes a victim who is bound and gagged. Unknown to Cyclo, the Poet recruits his older sister into prostitution, making her available to men interested in various fetishes while preserving her virginity, presumably out of his own love for her. When her virginity is finally violated, The Poet tracks down and brutally murders the offending patron. Cyclo is forced to stay in an apartment away from his family and told to perform errands for the gang such as smuggling dope hidden in slaughtered cattle and throwing a gasoline firebomb into the building of the rival gang that stole his pedicab.
Tran's vision is hallucinatory and unnerving and I often found myself unable to distinguish between what is real and what is a dream. The story is told from Cyclo's perspective and we enter his mind to witness his steady descent into confusion and fear, culminating in a memorable sequence where he combines pills and liquor and drenches himself in blue paint. Cyclo is disturbing and raw but it is an original work of art, both a brutal and often bizarre look at Saigon's mean streets, and a searing love poem to the city and a young man who finally steps outside the vicious circle to discover himself beyond the chaos.