Curiosity kills the cat in Huang Hsin-yao’s dark comedy.
“Your boss’ name is Kevin, and my name is Belly Button. What a difference.”
You never quite know what you’re going to find when you go snooping through other people’s stuff. But sometimes, the desire outranks the risk, as is the case when the two heroes (although I use the term hesitantly) of this film become too enamoured with the idea of seeing how the other half live.
An extension of the short film Great Buddha (thus the + in this version’s title), this movie focuses on two characters: the bafflingly-named Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) and Pickle (Cres Chuang), two down-on-their luck members of Taiwan’s lower class. Belly Button is chronically unemployed, lives in what appears to be an abandoned garage and collects cash by picking up recyclables and handing them to his friend who runs a plant. Pickle lives in a small home with his sick mother and is employed by Kevin Huang (Leon Dai) as the security guard for the Buddha statue factory he owns.
Bored with their meaningless lives, the pair decide to steal the memory card from Kevin’s dashcam and watch what it is he – and by extension the Upper Class – do when they’re driving around. They soon discover a collection of secrets detailing Kevin’s promiscuous activities. And that … is kind of it. Great Buddha + is the sort of interesting little film that doesn’t seem to have a lot going on, until the plot just sort of sneaks up on you. After a good half an hour of just sort of ambling pleasantries and set-up, we finally get to see the story in motion.
What’s strange is that, in its own bizarre little way, this works really well for Great Buddha +. It’s a film that isn’t concerned about plot in the traditional sense, and would rather give us snippets from lives – all of which sort of connect – all of which are delightfully wicked in their humour. Belly Button and Pickle are two characters who we know very little about but are so well defined in their actions that we’re happy just watching them in their everyday lives, interacting with the rest of the weirdos in the movie’s sphere.
This is Huang Hsin-yao’s debut feature film, but his time on short films has given him the technical knowledge he needs, and his work on documentaries has given him a unique stylistic edge. It’s shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary at times, and a huge part of the film revolves around the characters just sitting at a desk watching dashcam footage. That the audience can be just as hooked on this part of the story as they are the other scenes is a testament to Huang’s ability to make the mundane fascinating to sit through. The dashcam is effectively a mini documentary within the film, and serves as a fun way to bring into light various plot elements.
Another instance of Huang’s interesting spin comes from the narration, provided by himself. He introduced himself as the director at the start of the film, and occasionally pops in to add commentary or straight-up explain certain moments. It’s a narrative device which runs the risk of being extremely tedious, but actually comes off as funny and poignant at times, and just absurd enough for this movie. Compare it to, say, River’s Edge, which featured interview segments to get out some exposition, Great Buddha + does it better by establishing that this isn’t your run of the mill production.
There’s the occasional splash of meta humour in there too, but as its woven so intricately within the design of the film it never comes off as bad. This is the sort of result you get when half your cast is made up of other film directors. It’s silly, it’s dark and it’s in black and white for some reason – except, naturally, the dashcam footage scenes which are in colour. Why? Who knows. Maybe they represent Pickle and Belly Button’s real lives versus their desired one. Nevertheless it all comes together surprisingly nicely, and has been the film I’ve been the most pleasantly surprised by this festival. Just be wary of the thumping coming from within the Buddha.
Verdict: Equally dark, funny and sweet, Great Buddha + might not leave you with a sense of inner peace like its titular statue, but it is definitely a pleasant, satisfying time.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Motorcycle of choice: hot pink, naturally
Amitabha Buddha: Amitabha Buddha
Great Buddha + (2018)
Also known as: 大佛普拉斯 (Dà fó pǔ lā sī)
Writer: Huang Hsin-yao
Director: Huang Hsin-yao
Cres Chuang – Pickle
Bamboo Chen – Belly Button
Leon Dai – Kevin
Na Dow – Peanut
Chang Shao-huai – Sakya
Ting Kuo-lin – Yeh Feng-ju
JC Lei – Gucci
Chen Yi-wen – Kao
Vincent Liang – Police chief
Yu An-shun – Police officer
Jutoupi – Singer
Lee Yung-feng – Deputy speaker
Lin Mei-hsiu – Senior
Cheng Yu-tong (Evelyn Cheng) – Kao’s secretary
Tuo Hsien – Belly Button’s uncle