For the first half-hour or so, Cyclo appears to be manifesting itself as Tran Ahn Hung’s ode to the pessimistic, martyr-fetishizing, squalor-affronting (oh, and neo-realism) of Vittorio de Sica’s worst impulses. The title character (a cyclo is a bicycle taxi driver) is scraping a living together for his two sisters and grandfather by carting people to and fro within Ho Chi Minh City. Sure enough, his employer’s bicycle is snatched away from him by a group of thieves. (Hmmm, I just can’t think of what other movie this reminds me of.) Thankfully, Tran uses this set up (as well as the stylistic red herring of making these early scenes becalmed and detached) to set into motion a far more unpredictable and, at times, hallucinatory series of set pieces. An extraordinarily imaginative director, Tran fashions Cyclo into a sensualist nightmare. The cyclo (a sinewy Le Van Loc) and his sister become intrigued by the mysterious Poet (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who also happens to be a gang leader and puts them both to work as a street thug and a fetish-only prostitute, respectively. The characters, such as they are (they don’t even have names, just occupational designations), live primarily through a faintly contrived sensation-based relationship with their environment, which basically means they occasionally put living animals in their mouths. At times, these characters are reminiscent of amphibians. Liquids become the motif d’abus of the film: water, blood, vomit, sweat, oil, urine, humidity, and paint. It would perhaps be stretching most viewers’ tolerance beyond reason to suggest that this utilization of nature-juice is meant to stand in for the fluidity of life, especially in da ghetto, and that all of the film’s destitute and desperate souls are, like the Poet’s goldfish, trapped inside an aquarium and staring at the escape they can see but can’t reach. But at the very least, Tran’s emphasis on visual flourishes (such as an out-of-nowhere burned-out helicopter showing up in the middle of a roundabout intersection or the volcanic blood rivers that spring from slashed pigs in the slaughterhouse) functions as a unique and oddly beautiful visual blush, which makes Cyclo far removed from Bicycle Thieves indeed.
This appears to be the uncut version of the film (it clocks in at 129 minutes, rather than the 123 advertised on the back of the DVD). The transfer suffers slightly from that same old albatross around New Yorker's neck (a mild ghosting effect that is easy to ignore on a television but deadly on a computer screen), and the images sometimes come off mildly soft as a result. Color-wise, this is a vibrant transfer. The film's emphasis on shimmering pools of liquid are well handled, and the nearly fluorescent blues and greens come across spectacularly. The stereo mix is fine, and considering how quiet most of the film is, the few interludes in noisy discothèques pack a punch.
Trailers for Cyclo and four other New Yorker properties. Have at 'em.
You'll want to take a moment in the bathroom before drinking in Tran's damn near pornographic use of fluid imagery.