Pain in pleasure, peace in chaos

CYCLO Tran Anh Hung (18) RHYTHM THIEF Matthew Harrison (18) JEFFREY Christopher Ashley (18)
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The Independent Culture
With the constant flow of push-bikes and motorcycles spilling across its streets, Ho Chi Minh City resembles nothing so bleak as Cambridge on a bad day. The director Tran Anh Hung uses this dumb bustle as a constant soundtrack to his film Cyclo, and a source of solace: in the taut build- up to a grisly killing, the camera pulls back from the victim and drifts to the balcony where it casually observes the traffic streaming through the street below. It could easily be a banal Brueghel moment, but it's deeply affecting, demonstrating the fragile stability contained in the mundane. It's not long before the grumble of revving engines and the rude chirrup of horns assumes the insistent musicality of a bird-song - there's something hypnotic about the racket that encapsulates the horrible allure of city life.

Cyclo has two central characters, both trapped in Ho Chi Minh City. The first is the Cyclo (Le Van Loc), a teenage cycle-taxi driver, his identity defined by his occupation. (If this calls to mind Pickpocket, you're on the right track.) He's shackled to his life, having been bequeathed nothing but misery by his late father, himself a cyclo killed in a collision. And when the boy's vehicle is stolen, life becomes even tougher. There's no doubt that he'll be snared by the swift rewards of illicit activity, but the energising rush of crime unexpectedly transforms him.

His doppelganger is the Poet (Tony Leung-Chiu Wai), a petty hood whose expressive, pain-wracked eyes compensate for a lack of words. He's a regretful man, angered by the lad's enthusiasm for crime. And yet he's pimping for the boy's sister (Tran Nu Yen Khe), and her innocence empowers him; it makes him whole.

Just as these characters are drawn inexorably closer, so the film shifts its tone and style. It begins as an on-the-hoof, Salaam Bombay-style study of the nucleus of poverty, but the second half is more abstract, mirroring the Cyclo's descent into the Poet's baroque world. Hallucinatory episodes interrupt the story, sometimes simply to provide a breather after a sudden outburst of violence. The film needs these interludes - it's unflinchingly brutal. There's Hung's restless camera, and his vicious use of strobe lighting (two scenes in a disco and an abattoir are almost interchangeable). Even an innocent water-fight is imbued with the ferocity of a Peckinpah shoot-out. Conversely, a sickening murder scene has a bewitching serenity about it. The very fabric of Cyclo is subversive - Hung never stops sniffing out the pain in pleasure, the peace in chaos. His harshness isn't numbing because he keeps us guessing.

And he has created characters whom we rarely meet in cinema: the pimp who visits his family and is thrashed with a cane by his elderly father; the young prostitute gazing in goggle-eyed wonder as a fetishistic john snips the feet off her stockings. Everything in Cyclo seems to jolt or shock, which is why it's so harrowing. (The biggest surprise is that something so feral could have come from the director of The Scent of Green Papaya.) The performances (especially the noble Le Van Loc) fizz in the memory; the garish images feel like old nightmares. And the rough and ready world of the cyclos makes you grateful for London cabbies. Now there's something really shocking.

Matthew Harrison's Rhythm Thief tells the rambling tale of a Lower East Side desperado (Jason Andrews) who earns his crust flogging bootleg tapes. The film is already on video, and was screened by Channel 4 last year. But it fits the cinema screen snugly. Although its plot literally does nothing more than pad around the block, there is a winning energy in the performances and the jittery black-and-white photography.

It still smacks of Cassavetes Lite, and even at a mere 84 minutes there are times when working a pedal-cab in Ho Chi Minh City would be more of a hoot. So what makes it float? Harrison's generous compassion; the dry comedy of despair; and the bug-eyed actor Kevin Corrigan, who plays an irrepressible Jack-the-lad itching for his break in the bootlegging trade. He can be a diabolical liberty, but with patience you take to his audacity. That sums up the movie, too.

In Jeffrey, the title character (Steven Weber) is a young waiter so aghast at the way Aids has drained sex of spontaneity that he considers celibacy - at least until he meets a hunky bartender (Michael T Weiss). The film is a loose collage of skits united by the director Christopher Ashley's stultifying inability to translate comedy without concussing us. He doesn't seem to trust the material (by Paul Rudnick, from his own play), so each joke is delivered in triplicate. As an Aids comedy, Jeffrey lacks the wit and invention of Grief or Zero Patience. And as a piece of film-making, it's positively retarded. It has been selected to kick off the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in London tonight, but it's not fit to open the handicraft stall at a village fete.

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