The Great Buddha+ (Taiwan, 2017) – Screened Lives, and Screening Power/Play/Pleasure [New Directors/New Films 2018]

From the opening credits of his debut feature, filmmaker Huang Hsin-yao establishes his film’s atypical, tongue-in-cheek perspective and approach to his characters and what they experience/do in the course of the film. Adopting the first-person, a man who identifies himself as the director provides voiceover digressions, scene and character introductions/descriptions, commentaries, and other information (that only an omniscient narrator would know) on what is going on at the moment onscreen between characters and/or in their heads. The voiceover is first heard, in fact, during the opening credits, with the ‘director’ addressing the audience and commenting rather bluntly (and humourously) about his crew and producers. This seemingly haphazard, self-reflexive, interruptive style is then echoed by the film’s loose narrative structure of introducing/building up plot threads and concepts, and leaving them intentionally unresolved; messily so, though not in a necessarily detrimental way. In the process of examining small-town political power and corruption in Taiwan, Huang also unwittingly touches on concepts/questions relating to screen media. Or, better yet, through a diffused tale of two men of the lower-class — nay, under-class — witnessing something that they should not, Huang presents the integral role of screen media in the maintenance of politico-cultural power and corruption for elites, as well as in the experiencing of and/or playing ‘how the other half lives’ by the have-nots. At the same time, however, he hints at how screen media can be a possible avenue for the underclass to obtain some kind of agency.

While such ideas about the film could not be more serious, the film’s manner of hinting at or formulating them is much less so, in keeping with the director’s impassive yet sometimes comical voiceover narration. In truth, the film has quite a lackadaisical pace to it, as it devotes more attention initially to presenting characters, their social status and/or marginalisation, their daily doings, and their connections with each other. The core of the film, however, gradually involves friends Belly Button (Bamboo Chen Chu-sheng), an urban drifter who collects recyclable materials, and Pickle (Cres Chuang I-tseng), a night watchman for a Buddha statue factory. Belly Button makes it a nightly habit to visit Pickle at his office. One evening, consumed by boredom and frustrations with their social stuntedness, Belly Button coaxes Pickle to get the footage of the his boss Kevin’s (Leon Dai Li-ren) dashcam for some nocturnal viewing. While sifting through the footage over a number of days, the two friends become unintentional witnesses to acts of violence.

One would expect perhaps the film becoming an investigation of sorts that would give Belly Button and Pickle some kind of socio-political leverage (as well as character autonomy from a textual standpoint). The police even question Kevin regarding a woman’s disappearance, though he is let off thanks to the intervention of an official. However, following the seemingly haphazard, self-reflexive, interruptive style of the director’s voiceover, the film staunchly remains nonchalant and un-genre-like, casually observing what happens — or more importantly, what does not happen — to little, invisible folks like Pickle, Belly Button, and also their acquaintances Sugar Apple and Peanut.

In short, the elite remains the elite, while the forgotten and marginalised remain so as well, the two groups meeting only seemingly through screens, supported by the recurring imagery of dashcam footage, TV screens, and news clips. It is only by watching the boss’ dashcam footage that the likes of Belly Button and Pickle can (briefly) taste or play at living Kevin’s political-playboy life. Additionally, at one point the director interjects with his voiceover and the film’s own footage of Belly Button getting arrested to contrast with that of the police-controlled news.

An unaddressed, unresolved, and unsettling aspect about the film that should be addressed is its female characters: practically all the women in the film are sexual objects for high/er ranking men in politics and culture. If indeed Huang had meant for the film to be a kind of essay film about the Taiwanese economy, then perhaps this aspect is understandable; it could be read as a direct commentary on such treatment of women. Otherwise, it is sadly distasteful, presented in such a glaring way as a given. The only exception to be found is deep into the film’s running time when a Buddha statue is unveiled for the consideration of a group of monks, including a nun. Throughout the film, Kevin is in charge of the construction of a new giant bronze Buddha statue at the factory, whose completion brings into the picture a local congressman. The hilarious passive-aggressive back-and-forth between the congressman and the nun is one of the film’s most memorable moments.

The Buddha statue is significantly the only other recurring imagery in the film apart from the dashcam footage. By the time the statue is finished and is being used for a mass gathering, its benevolent meaning has all but dissolved, given all that it itself has seen alongside Belly Button and Pickle, a mute witness but revered, unlike the two aforementioned men.

The Great Buddha+ is showing on April 3 and 4 as part of MoMA’s 2018 ‘New Directors/New Films’ series.