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Great Buddha+, The
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by Jay Seaver

"An unconventional but intriguing bit of Taiwanese art-house cinema."
4 stars

Huang Hsin-yao's "The Great Buddha+" seems like a movie that could use a little more context to be truly appreciated outside its own region, whether by seeing how it fits in with Huang's documentary work, what it adds to his short film "The Great Buddha", or just knowing a bit more about the part of Taiwan where it takes place. Taiwan's submission for the Academy Awards is an interesting bit of work, but likely richer with a bit more background.

It makes jokes about that on occasion, as one man answers a question about his background by describing the poster hanging behind him. Huang breaks the fourth wall like that from the very start, where his narration reads out the names of the companies and producers that put the film together and returns every so often in order to make a wry comment that sometimes adds a bit more information that might not come out otherwise but just as often serves to point out the film's artifice. There's a certain value in that - being reminded that this is just a movie may keep viewers honest about just how much they've learned about this place from watching it - but these moments do threaten to get a bit cute.

The place in question is the fringes of Taichung, where Pickle (Cres Chuang) works as a night watchman at a factory that makes religious statues, with the biggest current job a Buddha that will be used in an upcoming Dharma Assembly. He passes the time with his friend Belly Button (Bamboo Chen Chu-sheng), a scavenger who collects bottles to recycle and the expired food left outside supermarkets; they can't even afford to drink. Their latest way to pass the time is to watch footage from the dashcam from Pickle's boss's car, a weird combination of prosaic shots out the windshield and the sound of various young women performing fellatio on him. One of those women, Feng Ju Yeh (Ting Kuo-lin), was waiting for Kevin (Leon Dai) outside the factory, but they don't see her again until they're looking at more footage later, and then… Well, what can they do? The rich and connected have all the power.

That feeling of relative powerlessness doesn't explicitly kick in until after Pickle and Belly Button have watched the critical recording, but Huang works a fair amount in to lead there, also building the story so that the characters can be relatively passive without the story seeming stalled - a song about a woman trying to hide her pregnancy at a party, for instance, will still be in the viewer's head when Yeh appears, while the narration saying that what's on screen is unimportant or peripheral increases the import of what little is going on when Huang is not diminishing the action. I suspect that the fact that the spoken language is Min Nan rather than Mandarin would serve as a signal to the Taiwanese audience as well, indicating a less upwardly-mobile set of characters.

Belly Button and Pickle don't really do a lot for much of the movie, but they play off each other and the people around them well - while much of the comedy that pushes the movie forward is built on strategically timed asides to the audience, Bamboo Chen and Cres Chuang have a sharp bantering chemistry, built around how Chen's Belly Button is probably smarter but Pickle's even keel is probably more useful. They give an impression of a certain sort of middle age, not yet the lean and leathery old men who have seldom had an ounce more than strictly necessary of anything, but on their way if they make it. You see that in Pickle's sickly mother, and in how Leon Dai's Kevin feels kind of paunchy in comparison.

It's probably worth noting that there aren't a whole lot of women in this movie, with a huge gap between the pretty bimbos that the wealthy men paw and Pickle's 85-year-old mother, and it's hard to tell whether this is more a male filmmaker's blind spot than a deliberate illustration of the mindset of these characters. Other choices Huang makes seem to reveal their import more readily - how the folks with power push people around on-screen and off, and how, having seen something awful at the foot of the sacred leads to them searching for answers only to find God and Country hopelessly intertwined and Country clearly corrupt and uncaring.

The film looks great, although there are times when the exquisite photography seems to be in black-and-white so that Huang can shift to color to make a point about how what is on a screen can be given heightened importance (or for a joke). It's especially impressive toward the end, where the dark skies around the Buddha being transported is an ironic contrast to the clear, oddly bright lights of a small funeral. Perhaps the latter is more more sincere than the former.

It's not really the sort of satire that makes its point while a viewer's defenses are down from laughing so hard; instead, it relies on the viewer recognizing some of the absurdity and chuckling, both for style and content. It probably plays much better for its local audience, but that's also part of the appeal - it's a smart, distinctively Taiwanese film whose here-and-there release in North America has been drowned out by more mainstream mainland productions, and deserves the attention of people interested in visiting the art house (or digging a bit online) to find it.

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originally posted: 11/29/18 04:13:45
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Directed by
  Hsin-yao Huang

Written by
  Hsin-yao Huang

  Cres Chuang
  Bamboo Chen
  Leon Dai
  Shao-Huai Chang

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