Cyclo: Putting Vietnam on the Film Map

Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung hardly fits the description of a hot international filmmaker; he’s quiet, modest and unassuming. Yet, with only two movies to his credit, the Oscar-nominated The Scent of the Green Papaya (l993) and the new, visually stunning Cyclo, Tran has estbalished himself as a darling of the film festival circuit.

At 33, the director has no reason to complain. His feature debut, Scent of the Green Papaya, won the l993 Camera d’Or in Cannes and the French Oscar (Cesar) for best first film. Papayas also bears the distinction of being the first Vietnamese movie to ever be nominated for the foreign Oscar award. Considering the sorrow state of most foreign language fare in the American movie market, it was also popular with the public, grossing over $1 million at the box-office. Cyclo, Tran’s second film, won the Gloden Lion Award at the l995 Venice Film Festival and played in other major festivals.

In town for two days, to introduce Cyclo as the closing night of the UCLA’s Asian Film and Television Festival, Tran describes both features as “highly personal, albeit in a different way.” “In Papaya,” he says, “I paid tribute to my mother, the protagonist was a young servant just like my mom, whereas in Cyclo, to honor my father, I chose an adolescent who’s as strong and stubborn as he was.”

Set in modern-day Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), Cyclo is the story of an 18 year-old orphan who lives in destitute with his grandfather and two sisters. Pedalling through the city’s chaotic streets, he rides a bicycle rickshaw that delivers passengers to their destination. Competition is tough: The impoverished city is filled with cyclos. Cyclo’s dreams to improve his lot in life are crashed, when his bic is stolen…… and he’s thrown into a corrupt world of crime.

“The movie can be seen as a psychological study of survival,” Tran explains. “I wanted to show what I saw in Vietnam when I returned, in l991, after a long absence.” His goal, “to capture realistically the city’s violent rhythm,” became more urgent after he made Papaya, which initially was going to be shot on location but ended up being filmed entirely on a Paris studio-set.

“In Cyclo,” Tran elaborates, “the city is as much a characater in the story as the triangle that forms its center. I had to film it on location.”

The first, still haunting image that comes to Tran’s mind when he talks about Vietnam is the physical exhaustion of its people. “You walk in the streets and people are literally falling asleep while sitting or even standing. They work very hard, they never have a calm moment.”

What sets Cyclo apart from Tran’s first feature is its contemporary context. Papaya was set in rural Vietnam, in the distant past of the l950s, whereas the new film captures everyday life at present. For Tran, Cyclo is much “more fragmented, more complex, and more challenging” than Papaya. “I like to make the audience work, this is my way of forcing the viewers to participate more actively in my movie; you can’t just sit back and enjoy the show.”

Cyclo explores daily existence in Ho Chi Minh through the prism of three characters, whose paths cross. For Tran, the film’s most intriguing figure is the Poet, played by Hong Kong heartthrob, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Excessive violence, graphically depicted through some startlingly poetic images, is likely to be controversial. “The violence I’m showing is not the special effects violence of American movies, that’s why I choreograph the way people die as a ballet. A death scene, in which the poet stabs one of the johns who had abused him, is staged is a deliberate, operatic style.

“But even when I shoot on location, I try to recreate the ambience–and control–of a studio set.” This strategy led to some difficulties during the shoot. Tran had to use a hidden camera. But he’s quick to point out that it was not hidden camera like the one that Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou employed. “Yimou’s whole movie was secretive in a political way, it had to be. Mine is not. The only way to capture the tempo of street life was to put the camera right in the middle of things–inside a cyclo, on the sidewalk.

Aware that Cyclo will be compared to Vittorio De Sica’s classic, Bicycle Thief, Tran perceives his movie’s harsh yet poetic existentialism more in the vein of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, one of his most admired pictures. “As much as I like Bicycle Thief,” he explians, “there’s nothing in Cyclo of the pathos and sentimentality of the Italian neo-realist cinema.”

Along with Taxi Driver, Tran adores Apocalypse Now, which he simply defines as a masterpiece. Both Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now are “highly intense, personal visions about the human condition.” Tran had recently the pleasure of meeting Francis Ford Coppola in person, when he served as member of the Cannes Festival Jury, under Coppola’s chairmanship.

With the notable exception of a few American films (“you can count them on one hand”), Tran’s major source of influence is the Japanese cinema and its venerable/esteemed auteurs, Ozu and Misoguchi. But Cyclo owes his greatest debt to Yanagimachi, Yimatsru, and a little-known movie in the U.S. Tran said he borrowed “the relationship between the sacred and the profane, man and nature.” “I couldn’t have made my films without Yimasturi, my whole visual sense of space and how I treat it is taken from his film.”
Tran likes the comfort and habitude that working with the same cast and crew brings. Cyclo involves many of the same creative collaborators who worked on Papaya, beginning with Tran Nu Yen Khe, who played the mature girl in Papaya, the older sister in Cyclo–and is now the director’s very pregnant wife. Producer Christophe Rosignon (“who raises the money that I need quite efficiently”), gifted cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, and composer Ton That Tiet, whose percussion music creates the eerie ambience, has also worked on both films.

Tran makes a point to straighten his official bio, which continues to be incorrect in film dictionaries and catalogues. He was born in My Tho, South Vietnam in l962. At the age of four, his family left for Laos (not Paris, as most filmographies state) where they lived for 8 years–“That’s why we didn’t know much about the War,” he says. In l974, they moved to Paris and adopted the city as their home. Self-taught for the most part, Tran later studied at the prestigious film school, Ecole Louis Lumiere, from which he graduated in l987.

Le Van Loc plays an 18 year old boy who works as a cyclo. Both of his parents are dead: His father also a cyclo, was killed a year before when he was run over by a truck. Forced to repay the vehicle’s value, he takes assignments from a gang of underworld criminals, led by the yopung poet.

The poet not only head a crime gang, for which Cyclo works to repay his vehicle’s value, but also serves as pimp, using Cyclo’s beautiful in some kinky tricks with his customers.

The plot was perfect for the director, for it allowed him to make a “very mobile, very restless film,” as most of the action is seen from Cyclo’s point of view as he drives around town.

Americans don’t realize the great frustration of the Vietnamese people after the war. “The country was isolated from the rest of the world, there was nothing to eat, buildings were empty, and each of the few remained objects became precious be default. People were selling them on the streets–for a lot of money.

In most American movies, the images are fake, artificial, but I try to create images that are concrete as well as organic. That’s what makes the visual style of my movie documentary and stylized at the same time.

“My movies may have political meaning, but I’m not a political filmmaker,” Tran says, “in the sense that Oliver Stone is. “I’m not interested in the collective problems of a country; I want to explore the lives of ordinary people. But if the audience read my films as political, or even allegories, that’s fine with me–so long as they’re moved by the personal experiences and emotions of the characters.”

Slated for release in Vietnam later this year, Tran is nervous about the reaction to Cyclo, fearing he might be charged with depicting Vietnam in “too dark and negative colors,” which was not his intention.

“I’m not a pessimist,” he declares, “I’m a realistic optimist, if you can call it that. At the end of my film, Cyclo survives but only after he’s acquired a necessary knowledge of life. I wanted to show Vietnam’s loss of innocence, the prive it paid, the crucial lesson it learned about confronting life as it is.

The poet, who gives the mood and rhythm to the whole movie, stands for the whole country; he’s sacrificed because he sold his innocence for easy money. This is why he’s attracted to the initially innocent adolescent–Cyclo reopens in him a sore wound, he’s overcome with nostalgia for his lost youth.

Tran is writing the script for his next picture, which he promised will be lighter than Cyclo. The story takes place in Honk Kong and in the U.S., where he intends to shoot it. “Right now, I’m deliberating between snow and sun as a setting to my film. “But I can assure you one thing, he says laughingly, “it won’t have one protagonist, I don’t like single heroes in movies.” When I point out that Papaya has a single heroine, Tran allows, “you’re right, but that was a mistake, I was just beginning my career.”

“You probably won’t believe it, but I’m a product of a working class family, my father is a tailor and my mother is illiterate. Who knows, if we didn’t leave Vietnam, I might have become a delinquent, like some of my peers.”

To relive cherished moments of childhood. The poet is a victim of himself, and the movie is his descent to hell. That’s why he dies in fire, which is an act of purification. The only thing that intrigues the poet is feeding off their innocence; he’s like a vampire, feeding his perversity. But ultimately, Cyclo is saved by maternal love of the Madame, whose son had died. He becomes her surrogate son