From the director of the Academy Award Nominated film "The Scent of Green Papaya"
comes a shocking new vision of beauty, passion and power.
People sometimes refer to films as "disturbing." I wonder? If a film were truly "disturbing," wouldn't one leave the theater or turn off the VCR/DVD. Why would one want to be "disturbed?"
I've walked out of movies for a variety of reasons. Number one on the list is poor filmmaking. Second is sheer boredom (which could refer back to "number one"). I suppose these kinds of movies could be described by critics as "disturbing," but, almost never are.
Films labeled "disturbing" are almost always hailed by critics. If you are a movie critic, your greatest praise may be to call a movie "disturbing." Critics heaped praise upon Schindler's List, but labeled it "disturbing." The public mostly agreed. But, were we really "disturbed" or entertained? Or, was it both? Schindler's list had exquisite craft, and gorgeous black and white cinematography and a haunting image of a girl in a red dress, and, an amazing Ben Kingsley (the heart of the movie). But, we were kind of fascinated by the gore, right? We are a rubber-neck society, after all.
Contrast Schindler's List with a movie like Pulp Fiction? These events never happened (although they could). Critics were "disturbed" by mostly implied violence. Or, were they entertained?
The success of both movies may be due to one, and/or all of the following:
We are entertained by disturbing imagery.
We understand that art is often necessarily disturbing. We cannot compromise art.
We can endure enormous amounts of disturbing imagery if we believe the filmmaker is working towards something bigger: something with a message of hope or redemption.
We toss around the word "disturbing" when we don't really mean it. We feel shame for not being disturbed by a movie that clearly should have disturbed us.
I think "number three" is closest to the truth. For example, Schindler's List and Pulp Fiction's central themes are redemption. I don't need to argue the point, because if you didn't get that far in either movie, you were no
doubt "disturbed" and left. If this is a circular argument, I apologize. This is a review of Cyclo and I don't have time to reiterate the dramatic character arcs of Mr. Schindler or Jules ("bad mother fucker").
On to the movie. A Vietnamese teen tries to make a living taxiing clients on his rented bicycle. If the boy (played by Le Van Loc) can earn enough money, he can purchase his bicycle and start making better money (we're not exactly talking about "central air" for the condo). This is Ho Chi Minh City (still referred by some as Saigon). When our protagonist's bike is stolen by disorganized mafia, the only recourse is to join his "local mafia." Gee, and you aren't surprised that the locals "loaned" him the bike in the first place?
I believe that Cyclo fits the "number three" rule described above. Most Asian films demonstrate a steady loyalty to family and an ultimate creed that good triumphs over evil no matter how grim the
tale. This isn't to say that other countries produce "anti-family" movies. I sincerely think the Asian culture is more likely to produce a film where family remains contiguous through overwhelming
trials. This being said, Cyclo almost surrenders the theme because the story of Ho Chi Minh City has to be told unflinchingly.
So, why is Cyclo disturbing? I will give specific examples because most people know if they are the type of person who want to see this kind of movie. I hate reviews where critics downplay the violence, and we are not "braced" for what is to come.
In one of several "torture scenes," the protagonist is forced to drink a deadly mixture of water and gasoline.
As part of his "initiation" into the local Vietnamese mafia, our hero is forced to watch a brutal knife slaying (including a suffocating plastic bag), and sprayed blood from the victim's jugular.
Attempting to escape the police, our hero crawls through ungodly, slimy hell to emerge with dung and insects plastered on his face in "close-up," on his upper lip, etc.
Of course, none of this can explain the psychological horror behind these scenes. I cannot provide the set-up. Just know that of the few thousand movies I've seen, Cyclo is one of the most disturbing.
What would it take for a critic to admit that a movie was exceptionally well crafted, etc. but, was so "disturbing" that the critic was too uncomfortable to watch? I have never witnessed this.
In the case of Cyclo, I would make a small argument for rule "number three."