Cyclo, 1995

An anonymous, gaunt young man (Le Van Loc) pedals his rented cyclo (pedicab) through the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh city (modern day Saigon) in search of a fare, stopping periodically to rest and to clean away the grime and dust of pollution from his feet. It is a legacy of meager livelihood that has been passed down from his beloved father who was killed years earlier when a motor vehicle collided with his own cyclo. But the young cyclo perseveres despite his impoverished existence through the devotion of his family. His proud grandfather (Le Kinh Huy), continues to repair tires despite his failing health, unwilling to take advantage of a fortuitous, misdelivered package that could be implemented towards an alternative, and less physically demanding source of income for his advanced age. His younger sister (Pham Ngoc Lieu) joins other poor, enterprising children sitting alongside the walls of restaurants shining patrons’ shoes. The older sister (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) earns a modest living by delivering water to local grocers and working as a cook. It is an austere, yet honest existence that would unexpectedly come to an end when the young man’s cyclo is stolen by an organized gang, and is severely beaten by thugs when he instinctively chases after them through the city streets. He pays a visit to his employer (Nhu Quynh Nguyen), an inscrutable middle-aged woman who dotes on her mentally deficient adult son (Bjuhoang Huy) in order to seek leniency and make arrangements for repaying the lost cyclo. The employer seizes the opportunity to recruit the hapless cyclo into her other criminal dealings by assigning him to a brooding gang leader with an affinity for poetry (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). The poet detains him at a nondescript upper floor tenement apartment away from home and the support of his family, and the cyclo is tasked to perform criminal acts in exchange for payment in US currency. However, when the cyclo’s beautiful sister is forced into prostitution by the charismatic poet, the two siblings find themselves struggling to retain their humanity and dignity against an increasingly desperate and inescapable future in the underworld.

Tran Anh-hung presents an evocative and harrowing portrait of corruption, alienation, and dissolution of family in Cyclo. As a Vietnamese expatriate living in France, Tran interjects surreal imagery with shots of urban decay and human misery in an attempt to reconcile his own childhood memories of Saigon with the reality of contemporary urban life in Ho Chi Minh city: the cyclo witnesses his father’s death while working as a courier for a syndicate owned butcher shop; a helicopter crashes on a busy city square; his drug-induced incoherent behavior alone in the apartment. However, unlike Luis Buñuel’s use of surrealism to convey human absurdity, Tran’s use of fantastic imagery reflects the filmmaker’s own poignant sentiment on the inevitable self-destruction of his illusions towards his irreparably changed ancestral homeland. Like the existential confinement of the young cyclo in the empty, abandoned apartment, Tran hopelessly seeks to recapture the elusive and ideal purity of an ethereal and haunting lost memory.

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