Friday, January 26, 2018

The Great Buddha+: Down and Out in Taiwan

The plus is a reference to the iPhone 6+, exactly the kind of coveted gadget that is beyond the reach of luckless losers like Belly Button and Pickle. They can only gawk at how the other half lives through the love hotels captured on the dash-cam of Pickle’s boss. However, the title maybe takes on additional meaning when the ne’er do wells see something they wish they hadn’t in screenwriter-director Huang Hsin-yao’s pitch black comedy The Great Buddha+ (trailer here), which opens today in San Francisco.

If you are going to use narration, you need to have a reason. Huang gets that, because he owns his frequent voiceovers. They are even more rewarding if you get the puns based on regional southern Taiwanese dialects, but the mordant humor still comes through the subtitles, crystal clear. As Huang himself explains, Belly Button always spends his idle evenings with Pickle, the night watchman, because he is only one in the provincial town more passive and put-upon than himself.

Pickle’s boss Kevin Huang owns a metal-works that specializes in large-scale Buddha statues. Of course, the meaning of the Buddha is lost on the two sad sacks, as well as most of the boss’s customers. When the TV goes on the fritz, Belly Button convinces Pickle to extract Huang’s dash-cam memory cards, which they quite enjoy in a voyeuristic way, until they happen to see the boss murder an inconvenient former mistress.

The vibe of GB+ is hard to describe, but it includes elements of Hitchcock, Beckett, Steinbeck, and the Frank and Ernest comic strip. In a sense, it evolves into a murder thriller, but just how much Kevin Huang knows about what our two idiots know is always kept decidedly ambiguous. In fact, the entire finale depends on the power of suggestion. Nevertheless, the scathing satirical dressing down of Kevin Huang’s local political cronies is boldly pointed and impossible to miss.

Taiwanese indie superstar Chung Mong-hong serves as cinematographer as well as producer, giving the film an arresting black-and-white look. In contrast to convention, he films the dash-cam sequences in warm neon color reminiscent of the films of Wong Kar-wai. Straight up, even though it is still January, this could very well be the most visually distinctive film of the year.

It also is features some wonderfully dry and understated comic performances that land quite lethally. “Bamboo” Chu-sheng Chen makes Belly Button one of the great anti-heroes of recent memory, while proving the adage every bully is really just a coward. However, the tragic dignity of Cres Chuang’s Pickle might be even more powerful. Chang Shao-Huai does not say much, but he still makes a strong impression as Belly Button’s silent drifter-squatter pal, Sugar Apple. Yet, nobody can top the charismatic villainy of Leon Dai’s Kevin Huang.

In general terms, GB+ shares a kinship with classic Coen Brothers films, but the specifics of Huang Hsin-yao’s execution are richly idiosyncratic and defiantly original. Twenty-six days in, it is definitely the best of the year so far (I wouldn’t want to have to go out there and top it). Very highly recommended, The Great Buddha+ opens today (1/26) in the Bay Area, at the Lee Neighborhood 4-Star Theatre.