Film Scouts Interviews

"Xich lo" Press Conference
at the 1995 New York Film Festival

by Henri Béhar
Tuesday, October 10, 1995

Whoever expected a touching-chatty-moving-funny-feel-good kind of press conference came to the wrong place, or at least in the wrong frame of mind. French Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung is simply not that kind of guy, as evinced by the exchange that opened the debate on his Venice Gold Lion winner "Cyclo". When someone asked whether "Cyclo", shot in Saigon, had been setup as a co-production with a Vietnamese studio or entirely produced by the French, the jet-lagged, flued-out director replied: "I may answer this question later; I don't think that constitutes the essence or the main thrust of the film." The audience was taken aback. "I don't mean to sound aggressive," Tran elaborated. "As you know, in Japan, modern dance has stopped being what it was after Hiroshima. For me, cinema can no longer be what it was after the Vietnam war. The violence in the film is not just a description of a bleak aspect of what Vietnam is today; it really carries my consciousness and memory of that war." Realizing the director's initial sortie was less an aggression that a sign of the filmmaker's esteem for a film critic's role--and God knows film scribes are not used to such respect--the press (for once?) raised to the occasion.]

QUESTION: In several scenes, there seems to be a joy in the way you constructed or choreographed violence.

TRAN ANH HUNG: If that violence got you off the mental track, then you went the wrong way. Violence should be examined with a cold eye, it's the only way not get sucked in.

When I went to Vietnam to cast the film, I met old women who told me the horrors they had lived through during the war.

The strangest thing was they were discussing it with a smile of extraordinary serenity and sweetness. One of them even listed the menu of tortures she had gone through during the wars--and she's known both wars, the French war and the American war.

It's that sweetness that gave me the idea to try and make the film with the same serenity. If you're not turned on by the violence, you'll notice it is depicted with an overlay of sweetness; only through that contrast does violence become unbearable.

QUESTION: Were you trying to present the different ways men and women respond to violence?

TRAN ANH HUNG: I don't make a difference between men and women; both have a horrendous rapport with violence. If there are men and women in the film, it is to show all the variations and convolutions of violence. Let me remind you a little bit about the war. The huge disproportion of power between the Americans and the Vietnamese is reflected in the respective numbers of casualties: millions on the Vietnamese side, tens of thousands on the American side. I say this not to engage and retry the whole war, just to indicate that because of the inequality in fire power, the Vietnamese had to turn their own bodies into weapons, and that takes its toll.

QUESTION: The symbol of the dollar that corrupts is clear. What about the symbol of the yellow paint and the blue paint Cyclo is covered with at the end?

TRAN ANH HUNG: It is not symbolic, it has a function. Cyclo is caught in the web of crime and violence, and one doesn't see how he could get out of it, except for a miracle. The miracle is embodied by his Woman-Boss. She starts out as a force of evil, harming him, then turns into a force of deliverance, through the maternal love she transfers from her mad son onto the Cyclo. To make the transfer clear, I had to create a link between the mad son and the Cyclo, and that was the paint.

At least, that's the link the mother perceives. There is another, which only the viewer is privy to, and that's the fish. The first time we see the lady with her mad son, she tells him, "You are my little fish". That's the first mention of fish in the film. At the end, when Cyclo has gone mad and is covered with paint, the fish opens and closes his mouth, as was the case with the mad son.

At the beginning, the fish has no particular meaning. At the end, you can say it is the symbol of the transfer of the woman-boss's love for her son onto the Cyclo. I'm a filmmaker, therefore, I have to create images that convey that.

QUESTION: The young gangster, played by Tony Leung, is also called "The Poet". Is that a reflection of your ambivalence toward him and toward the film?

TRAN ANH HUNG: Of course. The Poet is someone who, on a spiritual level, considers himself dead to himself and to society. He sold his innocence for easy money to enter the world of crime, and he's nostalgic for it. Innocence is at the heart of the film. Vietnam today is opening itself to market forces at their wildest--which is a kind of pollution--and in so doing, we might lose our innocence.

The gangster-poet is aware of the problem, his sister and Cyclo are not. When they first arrive, he sees them for what they are--innocents--and the only way he can handle their innocence is to precipitate them into a life of crime. That's why he becomes his sister's pimp; that's why, when she cries after her first trick, for him it's a sort of consolation: innocence protesting against the hardness of reality.

QUESTION: At one point, Cyclo grabs a lizard, breaking the animal's tail. We know it can grow back. Is that a metaphor for Vietnam?

TRAN ANH HUNG: That is exactly what I tried to imply when we talked about metaphor: poetic images, thematic, theme-prolonging. The lizard's tail episode occurs when the Cyclo has decided to enter the world of crime. Again, as a filmmaker, I had to find an image to convey that. And it is the animal's face, somewhat diabolical with that frantically wagging tongue, that symbolize evil. What's important for me is to create images, often, perhaps, transitory, that are like icons, i.e. image with meaning. The image of Something. That, to me, is my main job as a filmmaker. Nowadays, you rarely see images of something, you just have images that tell a story.

QUESTION: Most Vietnamese films carry a Political Message, as the Government tries to control its public image. How difficult was it for you to make "Cyclo"?

TRAN ANH HUNG: I try to show the Vietnam I see. With the contamination which comes from the conscience of the war. It was not particularly difficult to make it there. I went to the censorship board with the script and told them I hadn't come to Vietnam to say everything was fine. After they agreed with me on that point I said I was going to deal with Vietnam's problems, and what we had to determine was the range, the accuracy, the authenticity, and the manner in which I was going to show them. I told the board I didn't mean to insult anything or anybody: I don't think I mean anything to that country. I haven't fought in its war, I'm in no position to criticize.

QUESTION: Some scenes, such as the repeated stabbing on the roof and a man setting himself on fire evoke violent images we've seen of the Vietnam war. Was that deliberate?

TRAN ANH HUNG: I wasn't consciously trying to make such references and didn't consciously put them in there. But some things are embedded in your subconscious and they emerge when you work intensely.

QUESTION: One can romanticize violence through the visuals, if not in feeling.

TRAN ANH HUNG: That's why I hope you felt another kind of violence here, a moral violence. I often hear people say that in American films violence is gratuitous, I don't agree. It's always justified, meaning the hero's wife gets killed early on, so he retaliates, therefore it's justified. That's mechanical violence. In Quentin Tarantino's films, on the other hand, the violence is playful, jubilant.

When you deal with violence, you must avoid the playful, the jubilant, the laughter, and the justification. It's easy satisfaction. When Cyclo's bicycle is stolen, there's no need for the young robbers to hit him. Yet they do, and I show it, to give you the feeling of how unfair it is. I even make the scene a tad longer, so as to make the unfairness of it all, and the violence it entails, even more unbearable, and you can't desire it. As opposed to "Reservoir Dogs" where, after the guy has had his ear chopped off, you're frustrated because he's not burnt to ashes.

QUESTION: Apart from the Cyclo's references to his father's death, there is a distinct lack of father figures throughout the film. Is the absence of fathers one of Vietnam's problem today?

TRAN ANH HUNG: You are quite right. When I started writing the script, my intention was to talk about rapport between fathers and sons. The idea comes from a physical sensation that swells up in me from time to time, that I'm doing the same gestures as my father did--and I've been able to verify that through writings, music preferences, etc. If in today's Vietnam, you take some one like Cyclo, who has no father, no education, no future, which moral yardstick can he use in order to grow?

The film presents variations on that theme. Cyclo's father is dead, yet present in his memory; the poet's father is physically present, but dead in his son's mind. Which makes it logical for these two guys to come together and become almost like brothers.

And when Cyclo resumes his rapport with his father, he is, in a way, spiritually liberated, as through his father, he reestablishes a rapport with his ancestors. The oldest cult in Vietnam is that of ancestors', and its most important rule is, "Live as good a life as you can, so that you can transmit to those that follow you, just as those before you tried to do for you."

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.