Blood-stained dollars in the new Vietnam

Issue 

Cyclo
Directed by Tran Anh Hung
Now screening in Sydney and Melbourne, other capitals to follow
Reviewed by Brendan Doyle

Winner of Best Film at the Venice Film Festival last year, this young Vietnamese director's latest film about a pedi-cab driver is a world away from his beautiful, slow-moving Scent of Green Papaya, set in the Saigon of 35 years ago.

Cyclo presents contemporary urban Vietnamese society in moral and social disintegration, where power over others is wielded with the gun and the flick-knife, and the pay-off is always in US dollars.

The cyclo or pedi-cab driver, modern equivalent of the rickshaw driver, is part of the Vietnamese urban working poor. Most are lucky to live over the age of 40 because of the gruelling work in all weathers and the poor diet. This film tells the story of an 18-year-old cyclo (Le Van Loc) who is drawn into a spiral of crime and violence when his pedi-cab is stolen by a street gang. Hopeless poverty also draws his sister (Tran Nu Yen Khe) into prostitution. She falls in love with her pimp (Tony Leung), the moody leader of a vicious gang which the cyclo later joins. The story is set in Ho Chi Minh City, where poverty, crime and exploitation in the name of the almighty dollar create a social jungle where innocence has little chance of survival.

The descent into hell of the cyclo and his sister is presented in images that are alternatively dreamlike and shocking, giving the whole film a nightmarish quality. The R rating is because of several scenes of extreme violence, such as the torture and murder of a rival gang member — don't go if you can't stand graphic screen violence.

In a recent interview with Margaret Pomeranz of SBS, director Tran Anh Hung, who lives in Paris, said that when he returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 1991 he was shocked by the violence of social relations there. "People were morally worn out after decades of war and struggle to rebuild the country", he said. "Since the lifting of the US embargo, a kind of primitive capitalism has taken over. The problem of the dollar is enormous in the country. Vietnam has a very large, poor population, so when the country opened up, people were willing to do almost anything to get hold of dollars."

As for the leadership of the country, "they were forced to make themselves into fighting machines to combat the American forces. These people have little economic or political training to govern a country. You cannot hold it against them."

A Vietnamese friend who saw the film with me said that of course the events portrayed could happen in any big city. I had to agree with him. In Cyclo, every time a dollar bill is seen it is in the context of exploitation and human suffering. The director's position is unambiguous, which only added to the power of the film.