Two small-town nobodies who get cheap thrills from car dash-cam videos lay eyes on more than they can handle in “The Great Buddha+,” a mordant black comedy that’s a digital-era homage to “Rear Window.” Sporting an ingeniously cinematic concept that’s nimbly executed by writer-director Huang Hsin-yao and producer-DP Chung Mong-hong, this ballad of sad losers mixed with satire on parochial politics is convulsively funny yet uncompromisingly bleak, bridging art with entertainment. Arguably the best film to emerge from a year of exciting resurgence in Taiwan, which hasn’t produced an independent film that addresses themes both local and global in some time, “Buddha” swept the board at the Taipei Film Awards, and should be blessed with numerous festival invitations.
A documentary filmmaker with several awards under his belt, Huang caught the eye of auteur Chung Mong-hong (“Godspeed,” “Soul”) with his first fiction short, after which Chung offered to produce as well as shoot a feature-length version. Under his usual pseudonym Nagao Nakashima, Chung lensed the dramatic parts in crisp, artfully composed black-and-white, while capturing footage as if seen from a dash cam in glowing color. The ‘+’ was appended to the English title as a cheeky meme of the iPhone 6+, which came out around the time Huang began expanding his short to a feature.
That would have remained a mere exercise subverting the grainy, monochrome texture associated with found-footage films, if not for the warm touch added by Huang’s cheeky running voiceover commentaries. A born raconteur, his choice use of puns and obscenities in Taiwanese dialect is a source of constant delight as well as insight into his protagonists’ inner thoughts.
According to the helmer, he strove to convey the pathos of Taiwan’s underclass, more often the butt of jokes in movies or on TV. True enough, the central figures are either country bumpkins or social outcasts, whom he furnishes with quirky traits, unfortunate backstories and varying degrees of destitution and desperation.
Pickle (Cres Chuang, co-director of Taiwan’s hit documentary “Let It Be”) is a security guard at a factory that churns out cast-iron statues. To support his sick mother, he also moonlights in a funeral marching band. His only friend is Belly Button (Bamboo Chen), a junk-collector and occasional odd-jobber who loves to drop by on his night shifts. They share goodies like old porno mags with suspiciously sticky pages and barely-defrosted, expired bento meals cast out by convenience stores.
Their vulgar banter is wickedly funny, but Huang also demonstrates his unsentimental view of human nature by showing how Belly Button, pushed around by everyone, bullies nebbishy Pickle to feel superior. One night, when Pickle’s decrepit TV stops working, Belly Button suggests playing back videos recorded on the dash cam of his boss Kevin’s Mercedes. The footage, in glossy color, mockingly affirms Belly Button’s remark that “rich people’s lives are so colorful.”
The film serves up a voyeur’s dream, letting the disembodied voice of Kevin (actor-director Leon Dai, “No puedo vivir sin ti”) and a string of horny mistresses trail over monotonous yet surreal images of highways, tunnels and love motel drive-ins with the P.O.V. seen through a dashboard. Huang stresses the class subtext underlining Kevin’s womanizing which Belly Button bitterly envies as a prerogative of the elite (cue a scene when the U.S.-educated Kevin switches into English to impress a student-cum-escort).
Their innocuous pastime gets complicated when they overhear a brawl between the boss and his old flame Yeh Feng-ju (Ting Kuo-lin), who threatens to expose his shady business dealings. What they see makes them wish they’d hit the pause button earlier.
Huang lets tension cook on a long simmer, leaving much to viewers’ imaginations. For example, the half-finished Great Buddha statue that the factory was commissioned to build for a new temple gets its head glued on overnight. How much, if at all, Kevin knows of what the two simpletons were up to, is left enigmatically open. As in a small-town noir inspired by the Coen brothers, the mood turns brooding and ominous as paranoia encircles the duo like a tightening noose.
The film conjures marvelously outré scenarios mocking the corruption and sleaziness of politicians, as when Kevin throws a party for government officials in a spa-jacuzzi, asplash with sexy girls and a topless band. In another scene, Kevin, a congressman (director and Edward Yang protégé Chen Yi-wen) and the adjutant of a Buddhist sect (Lin Mei-hsiu) engage in a crackling, innuendoed war-of-words that hints at shady land development deals exploiting the temple’s inauguration as a front. Two campy scenes involving a seance and a shrine devoted to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek consolidate the film’s motif of religion as a tool for keeping the masses in line.
The unsettling finale, which culminates in the inception of the statue at the Dharma Assembly, turns out to be more ghostly than Zen, leaving behind a teasing trail of clues and allusions, without spelling out the answers.
Apart from boasting the biggest ensemble of directors in a Taiwanese production, the film features a cast that serves almost like a reunion party for “Godspeed.” Reprising their roles from Huang’s short, the two leads flesh out their insecurity and fatalism. Onscreen, Dai does his douchebag shtick, while his overripe voice performance borders on the obscene. Other supporting actors, such as Na Dow (“Godspeed”) as a grouchy convenience store worker and Chang Shao-huai as a drifter with a mysterious past, add flavor to the eccentric character landscape.