The Great Buddha +

Taiwan (2017) Dir. Huang Hsin-yao

It’s tough at the top, so they say but then again it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs at the bottom either. Both camps have a disdain for the other, born out of their respective positions in life resulting in a class war where there are no winners. This wry black comedy from Taiwan looks at this exact situation.

Narrated by director Huang Hsin-yao himself, this is the tale of two losers in life, Pickle (Cres Chuang) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chen). The latter works at a scrap yard while the former holds two jobs to pay for the treatment for his sick mother. It is at Pickle’s second job as a night watchman for a factory that makes giant Buddha statues that the action takes place, as Belly Button sits with his friend during his shift.

Pickle’s boss is Kevin (Leon Dai), your typical corrupt playboy louse – flash car, money, a different girl for a different night, and hobnobbing with powerful people to serve his own purposes. With no TV to watch, Belly Button suggests watching the footage from the dashcam of Kevin’s Mercedes Benz, discovering something they wished they hadn’t.

The origin of this indie film is Huang’s 2014 award winning short The Great Buddha which he was encouraged to turn into a feature, and, like its predecessor, scored big on the awards circuit. The “+” in the title is a cheeky reference to the iPhone 6+ which came out while Huang was working on this extended story which is essentially what it is.

Recruiting the original cast members to resume their roles, this film is in black and white, save for the dashcam footage which is in vivid colour. Some might find many of the cultural and social references haven’t travelled so well. Even with Huang’s commentary to offer explanation, it is likely only the broader material will hit the target. This isn’t always a major problem but some national quirks and foibles do get lost in translation.

Needing no elaboration is the plight of the protagonists. Pickle is a saturnine, introverted 40-something, slight frame, balding and with glasses, working as a drummer for a funeral band during the day, and admonished for not being able to keep time. At least he is left alone at the factory while Kevin is out on another promiscuous nighttime drive.

Belly Button is equally downtrodden, taking out his frustrations from being treated like an imbecile at work on his timorous friend. His contribution to the night shift is discarded cold lunch boxes from supermarket bins and old adult magazines he found at work, the contents of which Belly Button appraises like an art critic waxing lyrical over a Da Vinci or Turner masterpiece.

There seems little to connect these two beyond their meagre existences but they make an intriguing and often entertaining couple. Pickle doesn’t say much nor wants to cause a fuss, so Belly Button vocalises their disdain for the power the rich wield, a rant juxtaposed with a pool party for the local elite, including Kevin, held by the Assistant Speaker (Lee Yung-feng), involving frolicking with young women whilst a live band plays in their swimming gear.

A fair amount of time is spent establishing this rich/poor dichotomy, finally picking up when Kevin’s evening is interrupted by his lover Miss Yeh (Ting Kuo-lin) on the phone issuing an ultimatum. This thread is resumed when Pickle and Belly Button watch the footage back a few days later, realising they saw Miss Yeh outside the factory the night this took place.

Unfortunately the story takes a slight detour from where we’d expect it to go, which is either a genius move in swerving us or frustrating in not leading to a resolve that is easier to understand than the one we got. Huang is still able to maintain the theme of corruption and political influence in solving certain problems, and is nonetheless scathing – it is the fallout and ambiguous, nay obtuse, ending that is unsatisfying.

The actual final shot is phenomenal – the giant Buddha statue in the centre of a sports arena bathed in a heavenly light that even in black and white is a stunning tableau. Yet it tells us nothing of its relevance or why the film should end so abruptly at that point. After 30 seconds of black and a first run of credits, the footage resumes, again seeming wilfully random if you didn’t understand what preceded it.

Huang isn’t just lashing out at society with this film, he goes a bit meta too in reminding us this is a satire, allowing Belly Button to break the fourth wall, or treating his narration like a commentary track on a DVD. There is also an amusing scene involving a pink motorcycle that falls into this category, yet this is the extent of the zany humour before the tone gets dark and desperately bleak.

It is this uneven tone that questions Huang’s intent for this film, whether it was to be a satirical comedy or a mordant social drama. It works on both levels because the subject matter lends itself to the lines being blurred in getting the message across, while the other key factor is the excellent cast.

Both Cres Chuang and Bamboo Chen create a believable chemistry as two of life’s losers despite being an odd couple united by their lowly social status, capable of being comical without playing it as a comedy. There is a louche appeal to their fecklessness that almost passes for charm yet they feel the most “real” of all the characters.

The Great Buddha + works up until a point before veering off into a direction that left me behind. Huang has made a clever and visually engaging film that is enjoyable and packs a potent punch, but is too niche for my tastes. I can appreciate what Huang has done and look forward to seeing what is next for him.