AMERICANS don't like to think of themselves as a culturally shallow and uninformed bunch, but in some ways, despite the glut of what passes for "information" these days, they are. I'm channeling Charles Grodin, but hey, what about the Americo-centricity of our press and electronic media with their 2-inch-deep analyses that persuade so many of us that we even have a clue? Yes, well, hmmm.
"Cyclo," a film by Tran Anh Hung ("The Scent of Green Papaya"), and "Bitter Sugar," an anti-Castro film by Leon Ichaso ("Crossover Dreams," "Sugar Hill"), share a few things besides a view of the steamy side of life in two of the last communist nations.
Both compare and contrast the romance of individual pursuit of happiness with the "reality" of the careless caretaker state. This is accomplished in several ways, not the least of which is the contrast between soft-voiced recitations of lyrical native poetry (good) with scenes of astonishing violence (bad). "Cyclo" takes the cake here in the blood-and-guts competition.
Both films are tales of young, handsome and infinitely sympathetic young adults whose simple dreams are trashed by grinding poverty, brutality and the lack of a social contract. They dare hope they might rise above the ruck and struggle valiantly to do so. Like thee! Like me! And like we they get sucked into the maw.
Of course, the same story could take place in our inner cities or in some of our immigrant communities, but let's not get into that. The subliminal message in both of these deadly solemn films is that however bad it is for some in the United States, it's worse over there.
Finally, both stories are similarly constructed and filmed in a way that produces in the audience enormous empathy for the protagonists. At least they did in this Ugly American.
"Bitter Sugar" is in some respects a tragic tale that is simply beautiful to look at despite the awful tale it tells. I suspect, however, that I was sucked into the pathos of the plot and the pretty kids and that this is really quite a mediocre film designed to pluck the old heartstrings toward the specific political end of getting Fidel out of Cuba.
The unhappy, good-looking people in this film have tight butts and real nice skin. Gustavo (Rene Lavan), an up-and-coming true believer in the Revolution, falls in love with a beautiful, ambitious dancer named Yolanda (Mayte Vilan). Gustavo has been awarded a scholarship to study electrical engineering in Prague, while Yolanda longs to go to Miami. The imminence of their parting lends apoignancy to the romance and an urgent heat to their lovemaking that will rip off your socks and send your voyeur heart galloping back and forth between adolescence and fibrillation.
Ichaso's Cuba Fidels while it burns. The old revolutionaries, including Gustavo's dad, are disillusioned and disgusted. Their children are enraged at having their possibilities clubbed to death by careless, lying bureaucrats, grinding poverty, cynical revolutionaries and brutal cops.
Terrible things happen to our heroes amid the decaying ruins of Old Havana and the economic imperialism that is beginning to dominate the New Cuba. Gustavo's rockero brother Bobby and his friends inject themselves with AIDS blood as a civil protest. Gustavo gets his own dose of realism that gives him existential nausea. Everybody from 2 to 90 has an angle or a black market business -- the hidden capitalistic demimonde is like a swarming of desperate ants at the People's Party Picnic.
"Bitter Sugar" is bitter indeed, and I dearly wished Ichaso had lightened up a little. There's little here of the style of the late Tomas Gutierez Alea ("Underdevelopment," "Strawberry and Chocolate"), and toward its end the movie felt like a nail in the forehead. In addition to the doomed lovers and a lifetime of woe, however, it has hot music, charged "native" dancing, a colonial travelogue and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that'll remind you of a Calvin Klein ad. It's really quite a manipulative little movie, but it won my heart.
In Vietnam we meet subsistence-level entrepreneurs even more desperate than the Cubans. "Cyclo" is apparently less political than "Bitter Sugar," but its message is delivered like a repeated punch in the face.
In Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, where, just like in Cuba, everybody has some survival gig, an 18-year-old Cyclo or a bicycle taxicab driver (Le Van Loc) is desperate to find a way to feed his family's table after his rented vehicle is stolen by a gang of thugs.
All seems lost for his poor-but-decent family with its handsome faces, clean feet, shining hair, earnest endeavor and healthily prepared food. The curtains sway, the shadows are soft, the affection is certain and strong.
A cool beer would be nice here, but instead the director drives the viewer's head into a wall. The Cyclo, deprived of his means of survival, is forced into a life of crime and brutality. The suggestion that he may have been inveigled by pals of his "Boss Lady," who is at once a gentle mother to a brain-damaged adult child, a shrewd businesswoman and perhaps a real rat-in-the-grass, lends both credence and the sorrow of betrayal to the Cyclo's story.
He becomes a thief for an underworld gangster known as the Poet (Tony Leung-Chiu Wai) and begins to make quite a lot of money. Unbeknown to the Cyclo, the poet had an affair with the Cyclo's virginal sister (Tran Ku Yen Khe) and has now forced her into prostitution. You can tell that the murderous Poet still cares, though, because the johns he sends her way just want to watch her urinate in a basin. In the meantime, one of the Poet's pals is off forcing his torture victim's jugular vein to squirt arterial blood like it was a severed hose.
The various stories are woven in and out of one another before they explode one fireworks-filled evening when the Cyclo, repelled by the horror of the underworld and what it has done to him and his family, gets even with all the rotten, corrupt, foul degenerates that have nearly ruined them. Naturally he uses the tools of their trade to bring them down, but this is no comic book he-man, just a skinny, angry kid. When last we see the Cyclo, he has apparently used his money to purchase a bigger, better bike-taxi, one that can and does carry his entire family at one time.
This is a stylish, well-paced example of the new Asian cinema. It could serve as an allegory for the survival of the Vietnamese people in the face of the mind-boggling exploitation and violence visited upon this country by the Chinese, the French and the Americans in turn, with help from some of their co-opted Vietnamese countrymen.
It won't remind you very much of Hung's breakthrough film, "The Scent of Green Papaya." In this case, though the camera lingers at times amid scenes of domestic tranquility as it did in the previous film, such scenes are shockingly and quickly intercut with shots of the bustle of Saigon street life, or somebody being slaughtered, then back again to a lovely woman cooking soup, and back to some other grotesquerie.
"Cyclo" is naturalistic and exotic, a stunning introduction to life in a distant culture that we helped despoil. Though Vietnam has been ruined a hundred times over, the director champions the survival of the traditional strong family values of the Vietnamese and sees this as the salvation of the culture. "Cyclo" won't appeal to all tastes but I found the film moving, honest and beautifully made. I won't forget it.
BITTER SUGAR 1996, no rating, 102 minutes, Spanish with subtitles New Yorker Video (800-447-0196 -- to be released Tuesday)
CYCLO 1995, no rating, 123 minutes, Vietnamese with subtitles, New Yorker Video (800-447-0196 -- in release)