At once cruel and tragic, visceral and daring Cyclo is the kind of film that stays with you for a while even if it fails to engage the audience in conventional ways.
Directed by Tran Ahn-Hung - a Vietnamese director living in France – the film made quite an impact when it came out in 1995 including taking home the top prize at the Venice Film festival.
The film's set up is a bit like the Italian film Bicycle Thieves but that is really just the beginning. A poor family in Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) contends with the daily struggles of making enough money to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head.
The household is made up of a grandfather, a young woman, her teenage brother and a younger sister. The two primary characters are the young woman and here teenage brother. The boy (Le Van Loc) is a cyclo – a driver of a three-wheeled peddle taxi [a rickshaw], which can be seen teeming the city streets in abundance. He makes a little money but is prevented by other gang-like cyclos from picking up customers on their turf. One day his peddle taxi is stolen. The woman (Tran Nu Yên Khê) meanwhile has begun to get into prostitution a bit with the assistance of her drug dealing gangster boyfriend (Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who is dubbed 'the Poet'.
The woman and the boy begin to work for both an inscrutable older woman in the city and the pimp to make more money to make up for the lost income from the boy's stolen taxi. But it is not an honest days work and they begin to suffer because of it.
If there can be said to be a main character in the film it is the style with which it is made. The film has a vacant stare quality to it, which is another way of saying the acting is rather dull but it is engaging mainly because each scene is so well directed. The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is gorgeous, and the edited and directed are very effective at creating a film that has memorable (and unique) moments of surrealism and shocking violence.
Director Tran Ahn-Hung (who directed The Scent of Green Papaya and The Vertical Ray of the Sun) has a real cinematic eye. He packs every frame, uses movement well and really mixes the colors well. He also captures the physical decay of the city and it's reflection on the main characters each of whom are dealing with serious alienation.
When the film came out in 1995 a good number of critics criticized the film's stylish use of violence and lack of character development but I think they failed to see the interesting and impressionistic way he tells the story. I loved the film when it came out in 1995 and I must say it still holds up very well today.
The film is beautifully shot in 1.66:1 format with all kinds of different light and color effects used to give it an amazing look. The transfer looks great and has been enhanced for 16 x 9 screens. The film is 123 minutes long and has 16 chapters. Something tells me the bitrate could have been a little higher but only a faint amount of artefact is noticeable.
Presented in Vietnamese Dolby digital [with removable subtitles] the film has an impressive sound design; from street noise to indoor sounds and even a nightclub scene with a Radiohead song playing in the background. It all sounds very good.
There are no extras except some New Yorker trailers.
Cyclo is a disturbing, stylish, powerfully effective and beautiful to look at Vietnamese film. Even though the story seems a bit hackneyed and the characters have little personality the film itself is directed with an impressive bravado that makes the whole thing watchable and to some degree enjoyable despite the subject matter. It holds up well on multiple viewings not so much because of the story but because of impressive individual scenes.