Taiwanese director, Huang Hsin-yao’s debut feature, The Great Buddha, has drawn countless accolades from around the world since its initial release in late 2017.
The film, which won the main prize at this year’s Taipei Film Festival and was also the Taiwanese entry in this year’s Academy Award considerations for Best Foreign Film, has been chosen as one of the main attractions at this year’s OzAsia Film Festival in Adelaide, an event which will run from October 25 to November 11.
Promoted as a type of gangland murder mystery, The Great Buddha is much more than this.
Huang’s film defies genre expectations in many ways. It is, primarily, at its core, a contemplative, melancholic rumination on human disenfranchisement.
Pickle (played by Cres Chuang) works two menial jobs to make ends meet. He is a lonely man, unable to assert more than a modicum of control over his personal circumstances. His closest acquaintance is Belly Button (Bamboo Chen), another loner, who ekes out his living from collecting recyclables from other peoples’ garbage and from sifting through roadside discards for scrap metal.
Every night, Belly Button visits Pickle at his workplace – a factory that specializes in the manufacture of large religious statues. Pickle works as the nightwatchman – and the two pass the nights in the tightly confined and claustrophobic ‘office’ space, dining on food Belly Button has scavenged from nearby restaurant bins.
Upon discovering that the ancient television in the office no longer functions, and in need of having something to fill in the long silences of the night, Belly Button suggests that they access the dash-cam footage from Pickle’s boss’s car and plug it into the office computer to provide some diversion from their boredom and loneliness.
Pickle initially resists the suggestion but does not have the moral strength to hold out against Belly Button’s incessant urging so eventually acquiesces.
What they subsequently discover about Pickle’s boss and his immoral proclivities and activities forms the basis for the film’s action from this point.
This ‘action’ however, does not conform to formulaic plot expectations, instead we are drawn compellingly into a form of voyeurism of our own, mutely observing a sad exploration of lives devoid of any degree of empowerment.
The protagonists find themselves having to confront their own compromised values and being forced to accept the unfair arbitrariness of their lives.
The presence of the implacable face of the Buddha constantly looking down on all of the plot machinations as they unfold, serves to silently remind us all that every action we take will ultimately have its eventual repercussions.
The film continually plays with a number of established narrative conventions to keep the audience engaged and alert.
Huang, speaking as the film’s director, employs a number of neo-Brechtian devices, such as addressing the audience directly at regular intervals, and, at these moments, it feels as if you have inadvertently hit the ‘commentary’ button from the ‘Special Features’ menu on a DVD. At other times, the film’s characters also knowingly comment about the director’s creative decisions as well. These devices serve as a clever reminder that we are all, at all times, subjected to the influence and control of some greater external power.
The mundanity of the lives of the main protagonists are depicted in beautifully shot, tightly focused, black and white, which accentuates the drabness of their lives, yet simultaneously displays the fascinating detail of our immediate environments – something to which we are, generally, sadly indifferent. Contrastingly, the ‘high life’ of Pickle’s boss, revealed in the dash-cam footage, is presented in full colour. Occasionally, a splash of colour is also included in the grey of Pickle and Belly Button’s downtrodden world in order to accentuate a random point.
Blackly comedic in parts, but soul-crushingly sad at other times, Huang’s film provides a dizzying melange of visual metaphor designed to solicit empathy and intensify our understanding of the characters’ reactions to the moral conundrum they find themselves inextricably caught up within.
The Great Buddha is not an easy film to watch, it is confronting in places, and the characters are hard to warm to – but by the film’s end you realise that a number of its images and ideas have been burned indelibly into your psyche.
The Great Buddha screens as part of the Adelaide Festival Centre’s 2018 OzAsia Festival which runs from 25 October to November 11.