Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 5:00 pm 
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Forbidden pleasures

Huang Hsin-yao's catch-all titled The Great Buddha is the most clever and witty film in this year's New Directors series so far and likely to remain so. For some reason it reminded me of the droll Mexican minimalist Fernando Eimbcke of Lake Tahoe and Duck Season, though really its emphasis on electronic game-playing and its well-thought-out nexus of religious hypocrites, crooked politicians, minor fat-cats and low-level losers is different; so is the self-reflective irony of the filmmaker introducing himself before th film starts to roll, and interrupting with commentary. Maybe it's the drollery and sympathy for underdogs that's the link with Eimbcke. Anyway the pleasure felt similar.

The dangerously scrawny Belly Button (Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen) and bespectacled Pickle (Cres Chuang) are a perfect pair of loser buddies: they couldn't be more invisible, and that's why entering their imaginative world feels special and their quietly combative intimacy feels real. Pickle is the night security guard for a little factory that produces Buddhas, including one big one that's featured in the spectral final scene where it's the center of a cultish celebration. But it looks like a fly-by-night place. Do these guys have any life or friend than each other? Belly Button is a scavenger who lives in a shack. He reminded me of the father in Kurosawa's Do-des-ka-den. PIckle moonlights in a funeral band to help care for his aging mother. That his status matches Belly Button's is shown by his sharing girlie mags with sticky pages and receiving and consuming with only mild complaint partly frozen, expired bento meals dumped by convenience stores. Pickle at least has a job and a mother, but as Maggie Lee points out in her review for Variety written at Taipei, Belly Button gives himself a sense of status by bullying or looking down on Pickle for his naivete about most things and general nerdiness.

Into this yucky world comes a dangerous entertainment: watching the factory boss' dashcam memory card images from his new Mercedes, Belly Button's idea of entertainment to fill in for a broken TV. Now this is a medium new to feature films. But it turns out to be a great one. The images of The Great Buddha proper are black and white; the dashcam ones are in lurid digital color. The metaphor is one aspect, the rest is sheer visual pleasure. The trouble for the surreptitious snoopers is most of the memory card videos are nothing. But a few times they hit pay dirt.

Pickle's boss Kevin Huang (Leon Dai) is sleazier and more evil than they had imagined. The dashcam card shows him in, shall we say, compromising positions with several women, not his wife.

Another aspect, a subplot that's not insignificant but never gets in the way of the loser drama, is the big Buddha, and the cult that visits and the annoying woman who critiques the Buddha, on which her group is to take delivery. And some appearances of local officials, throwing their weight around.

The new formats, including the self-reflective voiceover, the dashcam adventure, and the passages increasingly depicting boss Huang as a creepy loser who yet deserves some sympathy for the hairpiece toupee he always wears, are the highpoints of this inventive and droll production that's none the less for being an expansion of a prize-winning short. I must rely on Maggie Lee for the information, not a surprise however, that the two underdogs' dialog reps "vulgar banter" that's "wickedly funny", and that in Huang's personal voiceover, "choice use of puns and obscenities in Taiwanese dialect is a source of constant delight as well as insight into his protagonists’ inner thoughts." The "+" in the English title is a reference to the iPhone6, she also explains. I am sure much more is to be gleaned in repeated watches of this thought-provoking and ingenious film, which not surprisingly is heralded by Lee as the best in a year of resurgence of a recently dormant Taiwan cinema, and the big prizewinner at the local Oscar equivalents.

The Great Buddha +, 104 mins, in Taiwanese and Mandarin, debuted at Taipei, and was subsequently included in ten or so other international festivals including Toronto, Busan, Tokyo and Palm Springs, opening on the Internet in Canada and the US in Feb 2018 after Jan. limited releases. Screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center 2018 New Directors/New Films series.
ND/NF showtimes:
Tuesday, April 3, 8:45pm [MoMA]
Wednesday, April 4, 6:30pm [FSLC]


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