Metropolis on DVD

Cyclo

1996, 123 mins., Vietnamese with English subtitles

Director: Anh Hung Tran

If I had know that Cyclo, both the name and job (pedicab driver) of the film’s lead character, would end up with two live animals (lizard and goldfish) in his mouth, I might have passed on this fascinating and disturbing–occasionally surrealistic–vision of contemporary Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I would have then missed the even more graphic violence and kinky sexuality provided by this second feature from the Academy Award nominated director of “The Scent of Green Papayas.”

With these R-rated warnings in mind, what would we gain from this film? Some insight into the crowded Asian metropolis and its pre-auto stage, certainly an understanding of the infiltration of simple working-class jobs by criminal syndicates (however small in scale), and a study (as Jonathan Rosenbaum of “The Chicago Reader” has written) of the “endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next.”

The “male misery” is obvious enough: in the backstory Cyclo’s father (also a pedicab operator) was run over by a truck, but now Cyclo’s new boss (aka The Madam) loses both a son and a devoted lackey (aka the Poet). But this is only half the story, as the film takes somewhat for granted some extraordinary human trafficking that only gets punished when the Poet discovers that Cyclo’s Sister has been raped by a client.

If the metaphor at work in this film is that the underclass is open for exploitation by rampant entrepreneurial underground capitalism because that’s how the Asian metropolis handles the transition from socialism to red capitalism, then perhaps this accomplished director should watch some “Godfather” epics instead of (only) Italian neorealist films like “The Bicycle Thief,” which he parodies early on in the film when Cyclo has his pedicab stolen

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