A complete turnaround from his intimately observed, studio-shot 1993 first feature, “The Scent of Green Papaya,” Paris-based Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s follow-up takes to the teeming streets of contemporary Ho Chi Minh City for a blood-drenched saga of a poor rickshaw driver drawn into the criminal underworld and then spewed back out again. Made with the same jewel-like meticulousness and very Gallic sense of style that set Tran’s debut so far apart from other Asian offerings, the new feature again boasts boldly creative craftsmanship in every frame. The film is disappointingly compromised, however, by needlessly convoluted, often pretentiously enigmatic plotting, placing a considerable blight on its commercial potential.
“Green Papaya” re-created parts of Saigon in the 1950s and ’60s in a studio near Paris, making its artificality a virtue. The new film — at least in its skillfully executed establishing section — is more of a realist enterprise. Shot entirely on location, it richly conveys the texture of life in a sprawling, overcrowded city on the brink of total chaos. Poverty and wealth exist side by side, divided in this case by the line between scraping out an honest living and becoming part of an exploitative criminal network.
Central character is an orphaned, 18-year-old pedal-taxi driver, or cyclo (Le Van Loe), who lives with his grandfather and two sisters. With fast cutting and splendidly crisp camerawork, the film’s documentary-like opening sequences swiftly establish a dense mosaic of bustling street life and humble existence while he pedals through the crowds recalling the advice of his father, a cyclo killed a year earlier in an accident.
When his rickshaw is stolen, the cyclo goes to his boss (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), a melancholy, unsympathetic woman, dreamily devoted to her mentally handicapped son. Forced to repay the vehicle’s value, he takes on assignments from a small band of underworld criminals led by a young poet (Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Unbeknown to the cyclo, his beautiful sister (Tran Nu Yen Khe, also the director’s wife) is turning bizarrely kinky tricks for the poet, despite his being in love with her.
Becoming gradually seduced by crime, the cyclo asks to join the vicious band, prompting them to test his nerve by giving him an eye-opening audience with the lullaby man, who sings his victims to sleep in the worst way. After a narrow escape from cops while transporting cocaine in a freshly (and graphically) butchered pig carcass, he asks the boss for his old job back.
As the characters begin slowly to self-destruct, the film also takes something of a fatal turn, controting the basically simple story into barely fathomable new shapes. These rather studied permutations and poetic interludes make the narrative disjointed, all but burying established characters and central plot concerns. Most disharmonious is an archly operatic death scene in which the love-struck poet knifes a john whose games with the cyclo’s sister went too far.
Despite the pic’s progressively more esoteric loftiness, its often extraordinary beauty, intense performances, startling images and stunning, excessive violence create a kind of spell that some arthouse audiences will readily respond to.
Produced by Christophe Rossignon (“La Haine”), the film involves many of the same creative collaborators who worked on “Green Papaya.” Lenser Benoit Delhomme’s stealthy, prowling camera and Ton That Tiet’s eerie percussion music are especially fine contributions.