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Tran-spotting

Vietnamese Director Looks at Dark Side

July 28, 1996|Emanuel Levy | Emanuel Levy is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Quiet, modest and unassuming, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung hardly fits the description of a hot international filmmaker. Yet with only two movies to his credit, the Oscar-nominated "The Scent of Green Papaya" (1994) and the new, visually stunning "Cyclo" (opening Thursday), Tran has established himself as a darling of the film festival circuit.

The 33-year-old director's debut, "Papaya," won a Camera d'Or in Cannes and a Cesar (French Oscar) for best first film, and bears the distinction of being the first Vietnamese movie ever nominated for an Oscar. It was also a commercial success, not a minor feat considering the sorry state of most foreign films in the United States. And "Cyclo" won the Golden Lion Award at the 1995 Venice Film Festival and made the rounds at major festivals.

Tran describes both features as "highly personal," albeit in different ways. "In 'Papaya,' " he says during a recent visit to Los Angeles, "I paid tribute to my mother; the protagonist was a young servant, just like my mom. For 'Cyclo,' I chose an adolescent who's as strong and stubborn as my father."

Set in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, "Cyclo" is the story of an 18-year-old orphan (Le Van Loc), who lives destitute with his grandfather and two sisters; his father, also a cyclo who transported passengers on a bicycle, was killed by a truck. The young Cyclo makes his living in the chaotic streets but competition is tough--the impoverished city is filled with cyclos. The young man's dreams to improve his lot are crushed when his bike is stolen and he's forced into a devious world of corruption and crime.

" 'Cyclo' can be seen as a study of survival," Tran says. "I wanted to show what I saw in Vietnam when I returned in 1991, after a long absence." He says Americans still don't realize the great frustration of the Vietnamese after the war: "The country was isolated from the rest of the world, there was nothing to eat, buildings were empty, each of the few remaining objects became precious by default. People were selling them on the streets for a lot of money."

The first, haunting image that comes to Tran's mind when he talks about Vietnam is its residents' physical exhaustion. "You walk in the streets and people are literally falling asleep, sometimes sitting or standing," he says. "They work very hard, they never have a calm moment."

This painful imagery inspired Tran to make a movie that explores daily existence in Ho Chi Minh City through the prism of three characters: Cyclo, his older sister and the Poet. Heading a crime gang, the Poet is also a pimp who, despite his love for Cyclo's beautiful sister, has no problem engaging her in kinky sex with older customers. For Tran, the film's most intriguing figure is the Poet, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Tran's goal, "to capture the city's violent rhythm," became even more urgent after he made "Papaya," which took place in rural Vietnam of the distant past and was filmed entirely on a studio set.

"The city is as much a character in 'Cyclo' as the triangle that forms its center," Tran says. "I had to shoot it on location. But even when I shoot on location, I try to re-create the ambience--and control--of a studio set."

This proved a difficult task in "Cyclo," as Tran had to use hidden cameras: "The only way I could capture street life realistically was to put the cameras right in the middle of things--on the sidewalk or amid a gathering of people."

The film's graphic violence, depicted through some startlingly poetic images, is bound to be controversial. A death scene, in which the Poet stabs an abusive customer, is staged in an operatic style, like a choreographed ballet. But Tran is unapologetic: "The violence I'm showing may be excessive, but it's not Hollywood's special-effects violence. In most American movies, the images are fake, artificial. I try to create images that are concrete as well as organic, semi-documentary as well as stylized."

Aware that "Cyclo" will be compared to Vittorio De Sica's classic "The Bicycle Thief," Tran perceives the film's harsh yet poetic existentialism more in the vein of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." "As much as I like 'Bicycle Thief,' " he says, "there's nothing in 'Cyclo' of the pathos or sentimentality of the Italian neo-realist cinema." Along with "Taxi Driver," Tran singles out Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" as "masterpieces that embody intense personal visions of the human condition."

Tran does not perceive himself as a political filmmaker. "My movies may have social meaning, but I'm not interested in preaching about the collective problems of a country," he says. "I want to explore the lives of ordinary people. If the audience reads my films as political statements, that's fine with me--so long as they're moved by the personal experience of the characters."

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