Actually, I'd had a previous opportunity to see Cyclo, which was shown at 1995's New York Film Festival. My funds were limited that year, however, and I could only afford to see about half of the festival titles; Cyclo was one of the ones that I opted to skip. My reasoning was simple: Tran's first film, The Scent of Green Papaya, had been equally well-regarded, and I had been less than crazy about it -- had been bored pretty close to silly by it, to be honest. Undeniably beautiful, it relies almost entirely on the texture of objects to evoke emotional responses -- a perfectly sound approach to filmmaking, perhaps, but not one that I find especially satisfying. In the fall of 1995, I knew nothing about Cyclo, but I did know that I had no desire to pay NYFF prices to see another film in which the characters were less vivid than their surroundings, and in which a girl's bare toes caressing a rain-soaked leaf were considerably more expressive than her face.
As it turns out, my fears were utterly unfounded. In Cyclo, Tran is no less intrigued by surface details, but this time he's examining a lurid, frenzied, horrifically violent urban nightmare, and the result is anything but inert. What's more, his formal control of the medium is so profound that it fairly takes your breath away; I'll be surprised (and delighted) if I see another film this year that indelibly etches so many images on my cerebral cortex (or wherever images are etched -- back off, neurofolk, it's just a metaphor). It's dazzling, hypnotic, unforgettable. It's also so unremittingly, self-consciously bleak that I couldn't wait for it to end.
Everyone in the film is anonymous; the closing credits provide only iconic titles: "The Cyclo," "The Poet," "The Sister," "The Madam." I find that sort of thing irritatingly coy and pretentious, but I have no choice but to use these handles to describe the plot, so here goes: The Cyclo (Le Van Loc) -- a cabbie, essentially, making this the Vietnamese equivalent of Taxi Driver (a film which Cyclo does in some ways resemble) -- is robbed of his vehicle early in the picture by a gang of street thugs. The Madam, who had loaned or leased him the cyclo which provided him with his livelihood, hooks him up with The Poet (the Tony Leung of Chungking Express and Bullet in the Head), a pimp, pusher, and all-around scoundrel who is apparently endlessly tormented by the sordid life he's chosen to lead. It's certainly clear that he's ambivalent about initiating The Sister -- The Cyclo's sister, that is, though The Poet doesn’t realize it; nor does The Cyclo know about The Sister's arrangement with The Poet -- into a unique form of prostitution in which she caters to men with various odd fetishes without actually fucking them. At any rate, The Cyclo, who initially seems a decent sort, gradually descends into the various circles of Hell that constitute Tran's view of modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, née Saigon, whereupon things get a mite ugly.
There are two major problems with Cyclo, and the first leads me to make a general observation about screen acting. Actors have long known that sometimes the most effective technique is simply to do nothing -- not to emote at all. Required by the script to express great emotional turmoil, an actor will leave his or her expression totally blank, and we in the audience, who think we know precisely which violent feelings the character is struggling to repress, will be powerfully moved. It's a shameless trick, and it almost always works -- in isolated moments. However, when every character in a two-hour movie sports an impassive gaze from the production company's logo 'til the "living or dead" disclaimer, we are more likely to be moved to wonder which powerful sedatives the cast ingested throughout the production. It is virtually impossible to care about someone whose composure never falters; we're willing to do some of the work for the actor, sure, but we tend to draw the line at creating the entire performance in our own heads. I do, at least. Tran has cast some physically striking actors in his film, and at least one of them -- Tony Leung -- is quite talented, but they've been given nothing to do but resist the temptation to blink. And, as in Green Papaya, there's one casting disaster: The Sister is played by Tran Nu Yen Khe, the director's wife, who also appeared in his first film, and who has apparently so beguiled her husband that he is unable to recognize -- as plainly evident as it may be to the rest of us -- that she is a vapid mannequin; to complain that she cannot act her way out of a paper bag would be to ignore the fact that the paper bag is infinitely more interesting and dynamic than is she, and that the audience is much better off if she's trapped inside.
More troublesome than the actors' torpor, though, is the film's theme, which can be neatly summarized as "Life sucks, but in a moodily gorgeous way"...a common cinematic worldview which I tend to a view with a very cynical eye. Scenes of degradation and despair tend to be more effective when juxtaposed with moments of contentment, if not elation; even Orwell's nightmarish 1984 provides occasional respites of hope and happiness for its doomed protagonist, and for good reason: they create the illusion that the story is headed somewhere, which makes the dead-end finale that much more crushing. Tran is having none of that. His characters suffer and suffer and suffer, and then they suffer some more; eventually, when they grow weary of suffering, they give up altogether. By film's end, all three of the principal characters have individually either attempted or committed suicide, which struck me as overkill -- especially given the unorthodox methods chosen by two of the three. (Jumping off a tall building or ingesting three dozen sleeping tablets wouldn't be moodily gorgeous enough for this lot.) What was initially affecting becomes first tired, then tedious. For all of its brilliant imagery -- and I must stress again that Cyclo is quite spectacular visually; I expect to have no trouble recalling specific sequences to mind years down the road -- the film never truly grabbed me by the windpipe and inspired me to give a damn. Perhaps there's simply a limit to how much elegant suffering I can digest in a couple of hours. "So what we have here, in addition to Adventures in Human Misery," says Joe Mantegna halfway through David Mamet's House of Games, "is a short course in psychology." Tran, regrettably, provides only the former.
The title character is a teenaged Russian immigrant who, we discover almost immediately, happens to be clairvoyant. In the opening scene, a frazzled teacher, brandishing a handful of perfect exam papers, demands to know who managed to miraculously get his or her mitts on an advance copy of the test and distribute it to the rest of the class. Clara, as it happens, is the culprit; she simply opened the textbook and the questions swam unbidden into her brain. The students are individually interrogated by the principal, an enormous man in a blinding red suit, whose questions are met either with sullen silence or with preposterous accusations and confessions -- what ridiculous lies these children tell! Seeing the future indeed! As a safeguard against theft, the questions for a pop quiz a day or two later are drawn by lottery just seconds before the exam begins. When graded, every paper turns out to be perfect.
Most of the first half of the film is set on or near the school grounds, and the plot seems, for a while, to be about Clara's powers and their effect on the school's social structure and institutional hierarchy. In fact, my summary above is highly misleading; Saint Clara is really a rambling, episodic, low-key picture about young love, and the supernatural element is merely a pretext, a grabber. I'd even go so far as to call the movie incoherent, lurching as it does from scene to scene with little rhyme or reason; this is one of those instances in which SumOfParts > TheWhole by a ratio of about 2:1. But there are so many memorably charming moments, and the young actors are so naturally tentative in their pursuit of l'amour fou, that I was happy to relax and follow the picture in whatever weirdass direction it wanted to take me. After seeing a jillion teen movies in which the youngsters are either (a) violent, nihilistic thugs en route to prison or an early grave, or (b) sweet, innocent young things trying to work up the nerve to hold hands, it was a pleasure to see one in which the two instincts were in direct competition.
I've only seen two films from Israel to date (the other was last year's much more staid, but equally fine, Under the Domim Tree), and so I don't yet have a strong sense of the country's cinematic zeitgeist...if in fact enough features are being produced there to constitute a movement of any kind. In some ways, Saint Clara seems to hint at issues that the filmmakers chose to pointedly ignore or address obliquely; the school is named after Golda Meir, for example, and a statue of Meir is burned in effigy in one scene, but the film is otherwise resolutely apolitical. Even the fact that Clara is Russian seems largely incidental, just another way of differentiating her from her classmates. (This isn't strictly necessary, as it happens, since Lucy Dubinchik, who plays Clara, is so uncommonly beautiful that she makes the other kids look like trolls by comparison. Pressed to say what the movie is about, I'd say that it's about Dubinchik's face.) Domim Tree, on the other hand, nearly collapsed under the weight of its sociopolitical concerns. Somewhere in between these antithetical approaches, an Israeli masterpiece, I feel, is lurking.