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Movie Review

'Cyclo' Focuses On Gritty Life in Vietnam

August 01, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his Oscar-nominated "The Scent of Green Papaya," writer-director Tran Anh Hung took us into a French-Indochinese world of ritual and tradition so enclosed that he was able to shoot it on a sound stage in France, using several interiors that provided only glimpses of narrow streets outside.

He made us feel the fragility of this world, so soon to crumble, but with his dazzling new film "Cyclo" he plunges us, in jolting contrast, into the hectic heart of downtown of today's Ho Chi Minh City, picking out in the crowded streets a slight, wiry 18-year-old man (Le Van Loc), whom we will know only as the Cyclo (pronounced CEE-clo). He's one of countless men earning a grueling living pedaling a bicycle-taxi known as cyclos.

Only a year before, his father, a cyclo before him, was killed in a traffic accident, and he has vowed to make a better life for his family: his beautiful older sister (Tran Nu Ye^n Khe, the exquisite star of "The Scent of Green Papaya"), who delivers pails of water to a vast outdoor market; his younger sister, who shines shoes there; and his 70-ish grandfather, who repairs cyclo tires. They live in a tiny apartment behind a beauty salon that at least looks out onto a lovely, foliage-lined stream.

The world of this gentle family, however, proves to be just as fragile as the one depicted in "Green Papaya." When the Cyclo's pedicab is stolen, he is swiftly sucked into a nightmarish underworld in order to pay his steely boss, (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), for its loss. She is in her mid-30s and has a retarded son whom she constantly pets and croons to as if he were a large dog.

The Sister's lover, the Poet (Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, a major Hong Kong star and a marvel at playing passive characters), is a sober, handsome man of much ambiguity and cynicism who supports himself pimping and who is driven to degrade the Sister by prostituting her as well.

The question becomes whether the Cyclo and the Sister will be able to pull themselves back from the path of certain destruction involving connections between individuals of which both are unaware.

At first the shock of rawness, the outright savagery of "Cyclo," is so blinding that it's hard to believe that it was made by the same man who made "Green Papaya." But the two films are really companion pictures, taking us into a Vietnam on the brink of destruction and again two decades after the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

In both instances Hung reveals himself to be a supreme sensualist, marveling in the beauty of a woman's ivory complexion, the flowing and splashing of water and, here, even the metallic glow and flow of spilled paint. Once again, Hung is working with his master cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme, and his equally expressive composer, Ton That Tiet, to create images and moods that border on the surreal.

In his previous picture, Hung showed us a civility about to be swept away, and here he goes further to play innocence against corruption, beauty against cruelty, tenderness against brutality, luxury against poverty to drive home the terrible legacy of the war and a Third World nation ripe for economic exploitation by superpowers.

There are images of self-immolation, of fistfuls of American dollars and even a glimpse of a chopper, a war trophy displayed on a tiny plot in the middle of a busy street, suddenly tipped over during a street skirmish. But Hung is not being merely anti-American or anti-French, for that matter; instead he is looking deeply to the eternal relationship between good and evil and contemplating how this paradox has played out so drastically over the decades in Southeast Asia.

With its finely shaded portrayals, "Cyclo," which took the Golden Lion at Venice last year, is another superb picture from Hung, a world-class filmmaker if ever there was one.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has scenes of torture, brutality, self-immolation and sexual kinkiness.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Cyclo'

Le Van Loc: The Cyclo

Tony Leung-Chiu Wai: The Poet

Tan Nu Ye^n Khe: The Sister

Nguyen Nhu Quynh: The Madam

A CPF Distribution release of a Les Productions Lazennec presentation. Writer-director Tran Anh Hung. Dialogue Nguyen Trung Bing, Hung. Producer Christophe Rossignon. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Editors Nicole Dedieu, Hung. Costumes Henriette Raz. Music Ton That Tiet. Art director Benoit Barouh. In Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

* At the Nuart for one week, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 478-6379, and, starting Friday, at the Town Center 4, 3199 Park Center Drive, (714) 751-0594.

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