Cyclo: Vietnamese Tran Anh Hung Award Winning Film

With only two movies to his credit, the Oscar-nominated The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993) and the new, visually stunning Cyclo (opening August 1), Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung has established himself as a darling of the film festival circuit.

Tran’s feature debut, Papaya, won a Camera d’Or in Cannes and a Cesar (French Oscar) for best first film. Papaya, the first Vietnamese movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar, was also popular with the American public, grossing close to $2 million at the box-office. Cyclo, Tran’s second feature, won the Golden Lion Award at the 1995 Venice Film Festival and is making the rounds at major festivals.

Like Papaya, Cyclo is a personal feature, but in a different way. If Papaya pays tribute to the helmer’s mother, who like the protagonist was a servant, Cyclo, the story of an adolescent, is homage to his strong and stubborn father.

Set in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Cyclo is the story of an 18 year-old orphan (Le Van Loc), who lives in destitute with his grandfather and two sisters; his father, also a cyclo, was hit by a truck and killed. The young orphan makes his living bicycling passengers trough the city’s chaotic streets, but competition is tough–the impoverished city is filled with cyclos. The young orphan’s dreams to improve his lot are crushed when his bike is stolen. To pay for the cyclo, he is forced to get involved with a gang of criminals, led by a character named the Poet.

Cyclo is a study of survival, seen through the eyes of Tran, when he retuned to Vietnam in l991, after a long absence. After the war, the country was isolated from the rest of the world, with nothing eat, and people selling them on the streets for money.

Tran aims to capture realistically the city’s violent rhythm, which differs radically from the tone of Papaya, a film that took place in rural Vietnam in the 1950s. Papaya was entirely shot in a Paris studio-set, but Cyclo benefits from its on-location shoot. The city is as much a character in the film as the triangle that forms the story’s center. (Tran had to use a hidden camera in order not to attract attention). Ultimately, Cyclo is a more complex and challenging movie than Papaya. It’s also more mobile and restless.

Cyclo explores existence in Ho Chi Minh through the prism of three characters whose paths cross. The most intriguing figure is the Poet, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Heading a crime gang, the Poet is also a pimp. The film’s excessive violence is depicted through some startlingly poetic images. A death scene, in which the Poet stabs a customer who went too far in abusing his client, is staged in operatic mode, like a choreographed ballet.

Cyclo will inevitably be compared to Vittorio De Sica’s classic, The Bicycle Thief, though Tran had said that he perceives the film’s harsh yet poetic existentialism more in the vein of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Cyclo owes a debt to Yanagimachi’s Yimatsru, a little-known movie in the U.S., particularly in the way that Tran depicts the tension between the sacred and the profane, man and nature.

The movie also bears symbolic meanings. The Poet, for one, may embody the spirit of the whole country. He’s attracted to Cyclo, because he reminds him of his own lost youth, allowing him to relive some cherished moments of childhood. The Poet is like a vampire, feeding off his perversity with kids’ innocence, before his (and Vietnam’s) descent into hell. He dies in a big fire, which is at once an act of destruction and purification; he’s sacrificed because he sold his innocence for easy money.

At the end of the film, Cyclo is saved by the maternal love of a woman, the Madame who earlier had exploited him. But Cyclo survives only after he’s acquired knowledge of life. Tran wants to Vietnam’s loss of innocence, the price the country took, the lessons it was forced to learn about facing new kinds of reality.

Enjoying the comfort that working with the same cast and crew affords, Tran involved in Cyclo many of the same creative collaborators who have worked on his previous film: producer Christophe Rosignon, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, and composer Ton That Tiet. The beautiful Tran Nu Yen Khe, who played the girl in Papaya, is Cyclo’s older sister (and the director’s wife).