Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.
I sometimes find it difficult to muster up the necessary wherewithal to make it through subtitled films. That’s not an admission I’m proud of, but it’s an honest one. I have, over time, learned to like more difficult films and to not balk at watching things that challenge me mentally, but there are times when I just want to turn off my brain and be entertained. That’s more difficult with subtitled films, because they require concentration all the time. There’s no holding a conversation with someone else or looking away for a few moments. When a film is both subtitled and difficult in subject matter, this problem is compounded.
Xich Lo (Cyclo) is such a film. In addition to being in Vietnamese, it is also a film that requires particular mental fortitude. It reminds me very much of Ladri di Biciclette, although it bears similarity only on the surface and only in parts. It does have some close comparison to the Italian neo-realist style, though in terms of subject matter and characters as well as many of the plot elements.
None of our characters are given names in this film, because their names are unimportant. This isn’t a film about specific people, but about a world. The people could be anyone, and are anyone. Our main character is a cyclo driver (Le Van Loc), a cyclo being a combination pedal taxi and pushcart. It is the same job his father had, and the cyclo is the family’s main possession. His baby sister works shining shoes while his other sister (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) delivers groceries.
Everything changes when the cyclo is stolen and the driver beaten. His employer (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) leaves him with no options but to start working for a criminal enterprise. He begins work under a man who is both a ruthless criminal and a poet (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a face recognizable to fans of Kar Wai Wong). His sister also comes under this same influence and becomes a prostitute while also becoming involved with the poet.
What is staggering about this film is how natural it feels all the way through. Certainly there are events that take place, and some of those events, the death of the employer’s retarded son, for instance, are significant. But these events simply happen. They are not built up to, but occur just as natural parts of life progressing through Hanoi. Events simply happen, and the characters make choices both good and bad depending on what happens around them. It feels incredibly real and natural throughout.
Certainly there are moments in the film in which it is decidedly a film. However, one of the real strengths of this story is that for much of it, the people on screen do not appear like actors, but like real people living real lives and completely unaware of the camera nearby.
There are two very noteworthy aspects to this film beyond what I’ve already said here. The first is that it is violent, and this violence is completely realistic. It is not shown in slow motion or with particular style but suddenly and viciously, as simply another event in the day. In one scene, for instance, a character called Mr. Lullaby (Van Day Nguyen) talks to another man who is strapped to a chair, his face mostly covered with plastic. He shows the man all of his various scars and previous injuries then sings a gentle lullaby to him. Suddenly, without warning, he stabs the man in the throat, opening his jugular, which sprays the wall beside him. It is sudden, brutal, and terrifying because it is so completely unexpected.
The other noteworthy aspect of this film is its extraordinary beauty. This is a masterful piece of direction, with gorgeous camera work and startling angles. Unlike many films, it was no struggle to pay attention to the subtitles here because what was being shown on the screen is so surpassingly beautiful that it cannot help but be watched.
This, then is the magic of Xich Lo. In a film about corrupted innocence and lives destroyed by the whims and machinations of others, it contains moments of true beauty. This could easily have slid into the same sort of territory that similar films from early Hollywood traveled. Angels with Dirty Faces, for instance, chronicled another innocent on a path to destruction and corruption, and the melodrama followed hard on its heels. But not here. Tran is smart enough and talented enough to keep this film in the realm of the real and surreal instead of going for easy emotionalism.
Sometimes, like this, it pays to watch something subtitled and challenging.
Why to watch Xich Lo: It’s Ladri di Biciclette for a modern age.
Why not to watch: Like Ladri di Biciclette, nothing good happens.