EVERYONE IN SAIGON seems to have it bad, but there's no stronger symbol of human exploitation than a cyclo, a man who is used like a horse to draw a carriage occupied by more fortunate people. When our eponymously named hero Cyclo (Le Van Loc) takes off his shirt, it's a painful sight: His ribs and sternum jut against skin stretched thin like paraffin. His leanness embodies harsh injustice, as does the figure of his barefoot child sister shining shoes for a living.
directed by Tran Anh Hung with Le Van Loc, Tran Nu YꮭKhꬠand Tony Leung runs November 30-December 3 at Little Theatre
Using compositions filled with opposing iconography and blood-rich colors, writer-director Tran Anh Hung (Scent of Green Papaya) paints a brutal picture of contemporary Vietnam as a society of impoverished servants answering to a small group of gangsters and pimps. By comparison, Tony Bui's 1999 Three Seasons offers a gentler vision of post-war Vietnam. But like Bui, Tran goes for sharp, obvious contrasts between his characters: Cyclo's Boss Lady has a retarded 18-year-old son who lies in her lap all day, fed and pampered like a prized pet. She also has a handsome, brooding employee named Poet (Tony Leung of Chungking Express and Hard-Boiled), who spends most of his screen time dragging on a cigarette and looking jaded. When Cyclo's pedicab is stolen, both he and his beautiful older sister (Papaya's Tran Nu YꮭKhꩠare forced to work for the shady Poet.
That's the gist of Cyclo, which is full of gripping images and jarring breaks in story. The 1995 film has many strong moments, including one torture scene that would make even Reservoir Dogs fans cringe. If you can get over the confusing transitions, Cyclo can be appreciated as a rich visual poem, with verses about rivers, trees, and long-haired girls sung by various minor characters and recited in voice-over, recalling a paradise as lost as a whore's virginity.