Director: Huang Hsin-yao 黃信堯
Studio: Mandarin Vision 華文，Cream Production 甜蜜生活
Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語
Genre: Dark Comedy
Running Time: 104 minutes
Kevin 黃啟文 is an artist. His work has made him a local celebrity. He spends his time with politicians, police chiefs…and beautiful women. When he’s not working on his latest commission, a giant (headless) statue of Buddha for an important festival, he’s driving the streets in his Mercedes Benz — usually with a beautiful younger woman.
Kevin’s gateman is Pickle 菜埔, a quiet man who lives where he works, and looks after his ailing mother. He and his friend Belly Button 肚財, a quiet man who collects rubbish to sell for recycling, often sit, eat, and drink tea whilst Kevin is out.
One day, when Belly Button comes round, he finds that Pickle’s TV set doesn’t work. Bored, he suggests looking at the dash-cam footage from Kevin’s Mercedes. They soon discover a window into Kevin’s private world, of young women and secret rendezvous.
The next morning, everyone arrives to see Kevin has worked through the night to affix the Buddha’s giant head. And the ornament on his Mercedes has been knocked out of place…
The Great Buddha+ is a film that we have been waiting to see ever since it swept the awards at this years Taipei Film Festival. From various articles about the film, we knew that it was a distinctly Taiwanese film; and, we can now confirm that is absolutely the case.
Overflowing with cultural references which will make the film much more fulfilling for those who are familiar with life on the island, especially its more rural, southern areas. Factional local politics (replete with dirty dealings), the lives of Taiwan’s numerous recyling collectors, and powerful religious organisations are all on display. In a particularly amusing scene, Belly and Pickle are taken by a friend to visit a temple to cleanse their souls of evil spirits. The god of this temple? Chiang Kai-shek (not someone that most Taiwanese would consider as the ideal man for the job, though there genuinely are a few such temples). Then there’s the device upon which the film builds its narrative, the dash-cam cameras.
Dash cams are not something that we would frequently see before moving to Asia. Something that was perhaps reserved for people with lots of money. However, in many Asian countries, they are an essential part of driving culture. This review is not the place to get into the intricacies of why that is, but suffice to say that it is completely unremarkable for someone to have a dash cam in Taiwan.
What the dash cam allows is for director Huang to use one of the most interesting narrative structures from a movie this year, and one that also plays a role in the films fairly unique aesthetic.
Via the dash-cam footage, we are intermittently brought into a world of full colour in Kevin’s car. Though often devoid of visible characters, we hear (and occasionally see) many of the plots most important developments through this window.
The Great Buddha+ is director Huang’s first full-length narrative feature (he previously made a short film, Buddha 大佛, from which this film was developed), but he has a rich background in documentary film making. This has transferred to his narrative films, in two ways. Firstly, in his choice to focus on many of the forgotten people that one can find in Taiwan. Belly Button represents the ubiquitous recycling collectors, who can be found in every neighbourhood collecting various items to sell on to recycling firms for small change. As he travels, he encounters many who society seems to have forgotten, including Pickle, who has for years lived in the same leaky hut where he works. Secondly, Huang chooses to place himself in the role of narrator for the story. A bold move in your first feature film, but because of Huang’s experience, he is very comfortable in the role. It could easily be a disaster when seeking to maintain audience engagement, but Huang always manages to keep you engaged with his narrative style.
Anchored by solid performances around the board, and a story which will genuinely make you laugh, and cry, The Great Buddha+ is absolutely the must-see Taiwanese film of 2017.