Film Review: The Great Buddha

Marvelous Taiwanese study of down-and-outers’ survival strategies defines “bittersweet,” while managing to be effin’ hilarious along the way.
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The so-called poetry of poverty has been one of cinema’s recurring powerful leitmotifs, since the silent days of Chaplin, Griffith and other pioneers, through De Sica and the vivid, truthful work of Sean Baker today. The genre gets a particularly rare and beautiful workout in writer-director Huang Hsin-yao’s affecting, very funny The Great Buddha. The film addresses the daily lives of certain of Taiwan’s down-and-outs, some of whom count getting their next meal—which can be a trashed frozen bento with an expired date—as their most immediate and pressing of problems.

Security guard Pickle (Cres Chuang), toiling at a factory in the midst of creating an immense cast-iron Buddha for a major national celebration, lives with his frail, aging mother. He has but one friend: Belly Bottom (Bamboo Chen), an itinerant bum who collects junk and, eternally bullied by everyone in his scrungy world, takes dark delight in bullying Pickle, in the kind of relationship that one usually outgrows by high school.

In lieu of Pickle’s broken TV, the pair discovers home entertainment in the form of videos recorded on the dashboard cam of the sleazoid statue factory boss, Kevin (Leon Dai). There’s a lot of salaciousness here involving Kevin’s randy doings with his string of mistresses, even more exciting than the decrepit, sticky porno rags the two have previously bonded over. But when the guys witness the outcome of an argument between Kevin and an irate ex-girlfriend who threatens to expose his shadiness, they wish they’d stuck to the magazines.

Compositionally often quite gorgeous and filmed largely in luminous, at times otherwordly black-and-white, The Great Buddha is compelling due to its mordant wit, authentically observed performances and distinctive cynical/lyrical outlook. I’ve always found the (shall we say) "realer" side of Chinese underclass society immensely entertaining, for in their no-nonsense dealings and communications with one another they can be as uncompromisingy hard-core and plain-ass ghetto as the baddest of the bad, making a real mockery of any and all meek and mild Asian stereotypes. Huang's screenplay is suffused with the kind of electrifyingly funny profanity that in itself is the comic fuel keeping the viewer in perpetual anticipation of a good, snorted guffaw. Odd couple Pickle and Belly Bottom have a deadpan but puckish chemistry that makes these losers, who would be unthinkable to deal with in real life, absolutely riveting onscreen. Huang, in showing their interaction with other scrappy, eccentric personalities in their sphere and their reactions to the seeming absurdities of the outside world, so much more privileged than theirs, satirically scores all kinds of meaty sociological points. Particularly funny is an angry encounter between the statue’s creators and a prissily officious emissary from an eminent Buddhist group who criticizes the work as not virtuous-looking enough, an argument that soon hilariousy devolves into attacks on personal lives and physical appearance.

Huang’s voiceover narration is a definite boon, giving his film delicious context, as well as the fable-like quality it richly earns. A wonderfully tasty, harmonica-laced music score by Lin Sheng-xiang also works wonders, bringing to mind the way Larry Adler’s virtuosity on that instrument so beautifully informed the 1954 Brit comedy Genevieve.

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