TL;DR – This is a film of dissonant halves, both funny, yet confronting, sad but also hopeful, engaging but also infuriating
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is a mid-credit scene but it does not offer any answers
Today I get to review a film thanks to the Brisbane International Film Festival that I would not have normally been able to see. I have been trying to increase the films that I have seen from Asia, and while this has included films from Hong Kong and China, today is my first dive into Taiwanese filmmaking with Huang Hsin-yao’s odd The Great Budda+. This is an interesting film but also a frustrating one at times, so to properly review it we will first give a general overview before we enter into spoiler territory as we dissect its ending, and what an ending it is.
So to set the scene, we open on the coast of southern Taiwan, an area of great disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It is here where we meet our two protagonists Pickle (Cres Chuang) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) who live on the fringes of society. Belly Button spends his days going around the town collecting anything that could be recycled to get a small wage, while Pickle works several temp jobs during the day and is the night watchman of the factory of local artist and government bigwig Kevin (Leon Dai). At night Belly Button joins Pickle to help pass the time and one day out of boredom they decide to look at the dash cam of Kevin’s car and they see something they shouldn’t have.
There are a lot of things that immediately endear you to this film, and the first of course is the two lead protagonists. They bring an immediate warmth to the movie, and you can’t help but immediately feel for their plight, even if I agree that not keeping a bass drum in time should be an egregious crime. This is important because as their world starts falling around them and if you didn’t care it would be a dull film. Indeed, as you get to know most of the oddball characters in and around this film, you get an immediate feeling that this is a lived-in place rather than an artificial construction.
All of this helps because it is very difficult to pin down where this film sits with regards to the tone. When looking it up, many have called it a dark-comedy and well that’s close, but it doesn’t quite fit for me. There are moments of darkness, sure, are there comedic moments, of course, the scene where the officials and the sister from the monastery are being scathing to each other while still keeping up the veneer of kindness is one of the most hilarious scenes I have seen all year. However, it is not just a dark-comedy, it is more than that.
Part of the reason it is hard to nail down the tone is some of the stylistic choices that they have used in production. For example, nearly the whole film is filmed in black and white, bar one moment when they use it for a gag, and also when they are watching any of the dash cam footage. Having a film in black and white creates this stark contrast and almost flattens the world. So when you see the colour you are immediately drawn into the screen as a focal point. It also creates a dichotomy that when we are seeing the world through the eyes of the rich and powerful it is full of colour and the rest of the time it is just black and white. As well as this, throughout the film the director, Huang Hsin-yao jumps in with these moments of commentary and I’m not sure how to take it. On the one hand, it works much better than Quentin Tarantino’s attempt to pull this off in The Hateful Eight (see review). However, it does feel a bit odd like it is halfway in between a commentary track and a narration.
All of this leads to the ending of the film which will, of course, require that we engage [SPOILERS] for this point onwards. Throughout the film, we explore this world where wealth and power shield you from the responsibilities of your actions. When you have friends in high places you can do whatever you like, which we see in the murder of Yeh (Ting Kuo-lin). Throughout the film, it feels like we are driving to this point where all the things that are hidden will be revealed. Like how it is heavily implied that Kevin hid the body of Yeh in the titular Great Buddha he is making, up to and including the fact that one of our protagonists gets killed off in a suspicious manner. It feels like a freight train ploughing to one resolution and then the film cuts to black and the credits start, and nothing is resolved. Films are a very subjective medium so it is rare in my experience that a film can really unite an audience in a moment. However, in that one moment, it was like the whole audience as one went “wait what, that’s where you end it?” There is no resolution to any of the plot threads that the film spends its runtime exploring. Now as I said, I am not an expert in Taiwanese films and there is a very good chance that was some cultural touchstones that flew over my head, but still, it was an odd experience.
In the end, do we recommend The Great Buddha+? Maybe, you like films that explore the class divide, or are doing interesting things with narrative structure, or films set in Taiwan, then yes we would. If you don’t fall into any of those categories well then I don’t think I would recommend it to you, but boy was it an interesting film to watch.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Great Buddha +
Directed by – Huang Hsin-yao
Screenplay by – Huang Hsin-yao
Based on – The Great Buddha by Huang Hsin-yao
Music by – Lin Sheng-xiang
Cinematography by – Nagao Nakashima
Edited by – Lai Hsiu-hsiung
Starring – Cres Chuang, Bamboo Chen, Leon Dai, Na Dow, Chang Shao-huai, Ting Kuo-lin, JC Lei, Chen Yi-wen, Vincent Liang, Yu An-shun, Jutoupi, Lee Yung-feng, Lin Mei-hsiu, Cheng Yu-tong & Tuo Hsien
Rating – Australia: R18; Canada: 14A