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November 26, 2018

The Great Buddha+ by Huang Hsin-Yao

Huang’s stunning fiction debut has swept awards at numerous festivals, including five Golden Horse awards and Best Picture at the 2017 Taipei Film Awards. By turns tender, sardonic and gut-punchingly funny, the film is also a meditation on class in contemporary semi-rural Taiwan. Oily playboy Kevin (Leon Dai) is a sculptor whose factory turns out massive Buddha statues—an irony in which the film delights, with plenty of irreverent scenes depicting the Buddha as hollow, headless or overpriced. Kevin and his coterie of corrupt politicians cavort at a swimming-pool cocktail party and generally trample the rights of women and the poor. But the film’s gentle protagonist is the sculptor’s slumped, bespectacled night manager Pickle (played by documentary filmmaker Cres Chuang). His buddy Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) makes a few jiao recycling plastic bottles; we learn that he lives in a spaceship-like hovel ingeniously constructed of scavenged materials. The two improvise vicarious entertainment by watching video files downloaded from the sculptor’s dash cam. They witness an event that puts them in a terrible bind. With no resources among the living, they visit a Chiang Kai-shek temple to consult a dead but helpful, charismatic dictator. In an economy governed by prestige, favors and who you know, the movie hints that justice can only come from the supernatural.

Huang’s background as a documentary filmmaker informs the film’s refreshing focus on marginal characters and their scavenged lives. They are dignified by Chung Mong-hong’s widescreen black-and-white cinematography featuring minimal camera movement. (Huang confessed during the Q&A at the Vancouver International Film Festival that he resorted to black-and-white because the Buddha statue was the wrong color!) In contrast, the dash cam records Kevin’s world of entitlement in garish color. The contrast between these media invites a reflection on the “resolution” at which people live. Corruption allows the rich and famous to be oblivious to all but the most obvious clichés and fawning intercessions. Like the sculptor’s dash-cam recordings, their lives are low-res. In contrast, the poor, who struggle to divine the whims of the powerful and to read the landscape for clues to survival, cannot afford to ignore the smallest detail. Their existence is high-res. – Laura U. Marks, film writer, programmer, Professor in the School for Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, and Visiting Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University

Monday November 26 at 7pm

The Great Buddha+

Directed by Huang Hsin-yao. With Cres Chuang, Bamboo Chen, Leon Dai
Taiwan 2017, DCP, color & b/w, 102 min. Min Nan with English subtitles


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