'The Great Buddha +': Film Review

An audacious and funny switch to features casting a sharp eye on social inequality.

Taiwanese documentarian Hsin-yao Huang expands an earlier short into his first fiction feature.

Two buddies on society's lower rungs live vicariously through the exploits of a superior in The Great Buddha +, Hsin-yao Huang's cheeky but not unserious fiction feature debut. An expansion of an earlier short called The Great Buddha (hence that typographically awkward plus sign), it has racked up Golden Horse awards and several festival plaudits on its way to Stateside art houses, where it will introduce many American cinephiles to a voice they'll hope to hear from again very soon.

Set somewhere in the southern part of the island, the story's low-rent characters have names like Peanut and Sugar Apple. At the other end of the economic spectrum are men like Kevin Huang (Leon Dai), whose Western moniker seems to the rabble like something only the rich can afford.

Kevin runs a business making giant metal statues of the Buddha, but spends much of his time cruising around in his luxury sedan, romancing younger women. While he's out, the middle-aged Pickle (Cres Chuang) watches over the shop and its grounds, often fighting his boredom by letting local scavenger Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) come in for a late meal.

The two have an appealing Mutt & Jeff chemistry, quasi-innocents in a seedy world. Given how appreciative they are of the sticky porn mags Belly Button rescues from some trash heap — whoever took this photo, he marvels, should win the Nobel Prize — the voyeuristic novelty that will soon consume them seems tailor-made: They swipe the dashboard camera that Kevin has installed in his car, and start spending every night watching the footage saved on it — though the image onscreen may just show the road, the sound captures whatever mischief Kevin and that evening's date get up to inside the car. The men marvel at his sexual prowess, taking ages to realize how shoddily he's treating the women when he tires of them.

Though Buddha is lensed in black and white, this dashcam footage is shown in color — a reference to the livelier world of the rich so obvious that even Belly Button gets it. Having introduced himself to viewers with a voiceover at the picture's start, Huang enjoys pointing things out to us — not in a condescending way, but as a considerate host would. When introducing a homeless character on the story's periphery, he lets us know the man will only have one line of dialogue; when he wonders aloud why a character is fond of a certain game, he lets the man address us directly to explain. Sometimes the characters acknowledge us even when the director isn't intervening.

Remarkably, this frequent meta-movie humor takes nothing away from the film's serious aspects: the violent crime Pickle and Belly Button stumble upon; the loneliness of one of Kevin's abandoned girlfriends; the ambiguous commentary about religion, which seemingly always has a crime or a scam at its heart. Most importantly, the pic gets laughs out of the class system without being glib about its cruelties. The gulf between rich and poor clearly matters to Huang, who poignantly shows how poverty robs even the dead of dignity.

"Birth is eight-tenths of destiny," Pickle sagely notes at one point, long before the film itself starts to admit how sad this fact is. By the time Huang catches up to Pickle, his film turning elegiac and rain-spattered, it's going to take a cosmic, Buddha-sized intervention to overcome entrenched privilege.

Production companies: Cream Film Production, Mandarin Vision
Distributor: Cheng Cheng Films
Cast: Cres Chuang, Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen, Leon Dai, Shao-Huai Chang, Kuo-Lin Ting, Na-Duo Lin
Director-screenwriter: Hsin-yao Huang
Producers: Mong-Hong Chung, Ju Feng Yeh
Director of photography: Mong-Hong Chung
Production designer: Shih-hao Chao
Editor: Hsiu-hsiung Lai
Composer: Sheng-Xiang Lin

In Taiwanese
103 minutes