The Great Buddha +
Director: Huang Hsin-yao
Why write about this film now?
Taiwanese cinema has long been searching for the successors to the Taiwan New Cinema movement, to the likes of Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien or Tsai Ming-liang — in other words an independent Taiwanese cinema, with artistic ambition and potential for festival success. Towards the end of 2017 The Great Buddha+ emerged as part of that conversation when it did the rounds at East Asian festivals (Taipei, Busan, etc) to great success, eventually picking up five awards at the Golden Horse Awards, the equivalent of the Oscars for Chinese-language cinema. Curious to find out whether the buzz was warranted, I managed to catch a festival screening.
So what’s it about?
Two working-class buddies called Pickle and Belly Button (if you’ve seen a few Hou or Yang films you’ll be familiar with people, of a certain class, being known by such nicknames).
Pickle, on the left in that pic above, is something of a country bumpkin who, to support his ailing mother, earns a meagre wage as a night-time security guard in a Buddha statue factory. Belly Button, the younger one on the right, is the smarter of the two but even more of a no-hoper, stuck in a dead-end job at an imitation 7-Eleven, asking ex-schoolmates who’ve had fortune smile upon them for the occasional handout, and collecting recyclable scraps and soft-toys won in arcade claw cranes. Here he is engaging in his favourite pastime:
Belly Button often visits Pickle at his workplace of an evening, and with little work to do (not much interest in stealing bronze Buddhas apparently) the pair drift away their time sharing porno mags and cheap frozen takeaway curry. One night when the television’s broken, as a back-up entertainment plan Belly Button convinces Pickle to take out the data card from the dashboard camera of the car left on the premises by his rich playboy boss Kevin (again names tell a story, Kevin is American-educated). Navigating through the hours of footage (shown in colour amidst the otherwise radiantly black-and-white cinematography — see below), they at first find Kevin chatting up various hookers and mistresses in the comfort of his vehicle, hence setting up the theme of modern technology feeding the aspirational voyeurism of the poor over the ostentatious lives of the rich. In Taiwan like in every other society the have-nots are constantly forced to look at and envy the lifestyle of the haves. (“Look at the life of the rich, it’s so colourful” Belly Button exclaims in a cunning little visual gag). Soon though, they stumble onto something much more sinister, an ugly secret Kevin was trying to hide and the knowledge of which will change both Belly Button’s and Pickle’s lives forever.
Okay, that’s what it’s about, but what does it feel like as a viewing experience?
Right, the first thing to note is how wickedly funny it is as a dark tragicomedy peppered with vulgar humour, especially in the banter between the two leads. Added to this is the ingenious touch of the director Huang Hsin-yao himself offering up wry commentary via voice-over every now and then. He introduces himself over the opening credits and cracks self-reflexive jokes before announcing “I will leave you alone for now but will return later to chime in with my own thoughts”. And so he does, in a tongue-in-cheek raconteur kind of way, providing omniscient revelations as to his own narrative as well as playful jokes and anecdotes which balance the more sombre moments with some levity. More generally, as a look at a likable bunch of society’s malcontents struggling to make ends meet at the bottom of the Taiwanese economic barrel (with a dose of mordant satire of power and corruption, religion and politics, too), it feels like a non-condescending, deadpan ode to Taiwan’s social underbelly and those who populate it.
So darkly funny, self-reflexively playful, portrait of the social underclass… Interesting mix of things. Does it resemble any other films?
Well, comparisons to the Taiwan New Cinema legacy are inevitable I suppose, and the interest in these down-and-out buddies, as well as some of the travelling shots from the dash-cam footage or when Belly Button and a friend ride their motorbikes and the camera follows, bring to mind Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies, notably Goodbye South, Goodbye. But overall it’s a different beast from its illustrious Taiwanese predecessors. At times it made me think of a more listless version of The Big Lebowski in its blend of the morbidly comic and the bittersweet, and its sympathetic fondness for eccentric outcasts as commiserable in their own way as The Dude, Walter and Donnie. There’s something of the postmodern storytelling of the Coens in there as well, or to throw a more leftfield reference the narrative fun-and-games Huang occasionally partakes in is like a smaller-scale version of Mariano Llinás’ Borgesian masterpiece Extraordinary Stories (2008).
The buzz was warranted it seems then, the reported Taiwan cinema renaissance could be a thing.
It does announce Huang as an exciting new directorial voice (quite literally so) to keep an eye and ear out for in the future. His previous films had been documentaries apart from a short-length version of this (called just The Great Buddha without the plus) he made a few years back and which he has now expanded on with aplomb in his feature debut — but it’s too early to tell. On the plus side, with this and a couple of other films last year new Taiwanese cinema is being talked about with enthusiasm for the first time in many years. Watch this space. And before that, watch this film.