Liberated Vietnam

Cyclo, Directed by Tran Anh Hung

Tran Anh Hung’s 1995 drama Cyclo is a landmark of post-colonial cinema.

Saigon has fallen. North Vietnamese Army victory presser, April, 1975.

However, the French director’s second feature film is missing from streaming services and hard to procure on DVD, even though cinephiles constantly name-check its predecessor, The Scent of Green Papaya.

While this neglect is disappointing for those of us who hold Cyclo in high regard, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that the very qualities that make the film great are the ones that make it hard for audiences to grasp.

Now that Tran’s work is back in the spotlight, thanks to the extremely positive reception for his 2023 film The Taste of Things (La Passion de Dodin Bouffant), and HBO’s superb adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen novel The Sympathizer is helping to rekindle interest in postwar Vietnamese culture, it’s the perfect time to reintroduce Cyclo to the world.

After the surprising success of The Scent of Green Papaya, which was filmed on sets, Tran decided to try making a film about Vietnam in Vietnam.

It was an ambitious undertaking, made more challenging by the complex relationship between Hanoi and Paris.

The many street scenes showing the eponymous protagonist’s three-wheeled bike navigating impossibly crowded streets in Ho Chi Minh City not only provide a visceral introduction to life in postwar Vietnam, but seem to double as an allegorical representation of the filmmaking process, when even a short trip from point A to point B courted risks too difficult to calculate.

More abstractly, as an expatriate firmly established within French society, the director’s decision to shoot on location was fraught for personal and political reasons.

Although of Vietnamese descent, Tran’s family emigrated from Laos in 1975, when he was 12. That was old enough for him to retain strong memories of Indochina. But he didn’t grow up contending with the chaotic multitudes of Saigon.

His return home wasn’t truly a return home, in other words. And the partial estrangement that resulted made his mark on the film, particularly in characters who seem to feel nostalgia for experiences they never had the opportunity to enjoy personally.

Cyclo is intensely immersive. It begins with a shot of the protagonist pedalling his cyclo in the middle of a busy street. After a few sentences of disembodied voice-over explaining that the cyclo taxi is a family business, but not one worth continuing, we are left to our own devices, trying to figure out what is going on without the narrative signposts we are conditioned to expect.

What genre is Cyclo? Does it even fall into a genre?

Once the protagonist’s cyclo is stolen, it becomes easier to see the similarities with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which also starts with very little explanation, forcing us to get our bearings in a setting for which most members of the audience would have had little guidance.

Both dramas fall squarely within the tradition of films that help us map unfamiliar places in our minds, not by providing an explanation but by leaving it out.

Bicycle Thieves sticks to one story, the protagonist’s quest to recover his stolen bicycle. That makes the mapping process easier.

Cyclo, on the other hand, weaves the young cyclo driver’s story together with that of his older sister, the gangster poet she falls in love with, and the madame who employs them. Nor does the film provide much guidance for figuring out the relationship between these characters.

Tran’s aesthetic preferences complicate things further.

The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo demonstrate an impressionistic approach to filmmaking. Although both tell stories, narrative progress is not always a priority.

If a shot or a scene communicates the feeling Tran wishes to express, it doesn’t matter whether it fits neatly into the plot.

During one sequence from the middle of the film, we see the protagonist fleeing police after hurling a Molotov cocktail into a building as revenge for having his cyclo stolen.

Then we cut to a shot of him covered in mud. A long close-up of his face reveals little creatures walking over his lips.

In this instance, it’s not hard to surmise that he jumped into one of the canals that fill the city to escape detection. Yet the discontinuity created by cutting from the frenzy of the chase to the serenity of his refuge is still jarring.

The sequence concludes when he plunges his head into a goldfish tank that was brought to our attention during a previous scene.

Although this shot establishes that he has found refuge is a familiar location, the image of his head in the water, particles of mud streaming off as the goldfish swims by, is so arresting that this confirmation almost seems beside the point.

When the goldfish returns briefly at the end of the film, the memory of this sequence gives it greater impact.

Cyclo verges on surrealism at times.

At two key junctures, characters cover themselves in bright house paint. While we see an explanation for why this happens, the imagery is too viscerally overpowering to be contained by reason.

In a recent interview for The Guardian discussing The Taste of Things, Tran Anh Hung explains his fondness for moments like these, which function as miniatures, “something very small and at the same time, a deep, deep meaning about the feeling of life”.

Although these moments can alienate viewers struggling to keep track of the plot, he is willing to take that chance.

“I feel that today’s movies are too focused on themes and story. We see less and less of the language of cinema.”

In Cyclo, the abstract quality of these miniatures suggests that the film could be an allegory, as does the namelessness of the characters.

But for what?

In one sequence early in the film, we cut from the claustrophobic living quarters of the protagonist’s family to a view of an apartment building seen from far away.

Windows with laundry hanging in them create an abstract portrait of the city, in which the perpendicular lines of the structure contrast with the curves of a washing machine.

When we then zoom in for close-ups of a few of these windows, it becomes easier to discern a difference between the lives they showcase. Even if the people who inhabit these apartments are functionally equivalent, fine details reveal them to be as singular as clouds.

The implication is that our protagonist and his family should be understood in relation to all the families that surround them.

Since he and his older sister get sucked into a criminal underworld, he as a would-be gang member and she as a reluctant prostitute, the implications for Vietnam are disquieting.

Could it be that the Communists won the war only to keep losing the battle against human nature?

Presumably, the Vietnamese government would not have wanted to facilitate the making of a film with such a negative message.

It is likely that Tran’s preference for non-narrative elements in his films also served as a convenient form of misdirection, making it harder to interpret Cyclo in explicitly political terms.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can recognise that Tran was producing a kind of documentary, capturing Ho Chi Minh City before the forces of globalisation had made a significant impact there.

Although plenty of cars and trucks are seen, the streets still belong to the mopeds, cyclos, and bicycles that dominate traffic.

It is also very much a postwar environment.

From the amputees we keep seeing, to the prominent depiction of dollar bills, to the outdoor restaurant adjacent to an American military plane, to the Huey helicopter that falls off a flatbed truck, Cyclo won’t let us forget that its characters are the product of massive collective trauma.

Their emotional connectedness is symbolised by water, which figures prominently in scene after scene.

Ceilings are always dripping. People wash themselves with cups and hoses at every turn. Characters trudge through puddles everywhere. It’s as though the city itself were perpetually crying.

Staying dry seems impossible in a land colonised by the pathetic fallacy.

Although this view of Vietnam could be criticised for being too Western, a product of Tran’s European education, he does an excellent job of finding evidence for it within the nation’s culture.

Some of the most moving sequences in Cyclo feature the singing of a traditional Vietnamese song, which serves as an ironic soundtrack to the action taking place on screen.

The melancholy lyrics, echoed in the verses the poet recites in his head, testify to a mindset born of intense suffering and the will to survive. And they also remind us how much was lost during decades of war.

Even if the stories in Cyclo are hard to follow, the sensibility conveyed by its arresting images and music permits us to feel their significance.

It’s suitably ironic that one of the film’s most memorable sequences, featuring the protagonist’s sister and the poet in a nightclub, takes place to the accompaniment of the Radiohead hit “Creep”.

The anguish in Thom Yorke’s voice, muted by juxtaposition with other alternative rock tracks of its era, makes itself exquisitely felt here. By the end of the song, it hits home with the force of a traditional Vietnamese song.

That would also be a good capsule description for Cyclo, the work of a French director who manages to transcend the context that produced him.

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Photograph courtesy of Herve Gloeguin/Manhai. Published under a Creative Commons license.