Review: The Great Buddha+ // 大佛普拉斯 (2017)

 “I think that even though we live in a space age, and mankind could long ago ride ships to the moon, we’ll never be able to explore the universe of others’ hearts,” narrates director Huang Hsin-Yao in The Great Buddha+. 

At its 2 screenings as part of the 28th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), the film garnered full-house crowds and was a close contender for the Audience Choice Award as well as the Feature Film Competition. Humanistic and witty in its portrayal of the underclass in rural Taiwan, The Great Buddha+ had its audience break out in laughter interspersed with turns for the melancholic.

Huang amasses an assortment of nobodies. Belly-button (Bamboo Chen) is a garbage-collector, and Pickle (Cres Chuang), a night watchman in a Buddha sculpture factory owned by Kevin (Leon Dai). Two others form the crew: Sugar-apple (Chang Shao-hua), a wanderer, and Peanut (Na Dow), who mans a grocery shop. 

Passing the nights in a cluttered guard-house, Belly-button and Pickle come to entertain themselves with dashboard footages detailing Kevin’s sexual escapades. The duo’s mischief is cut short by a discovery that has them “sitting like idiots” till sunrise.   

Huang creates a strong juxtaposition between the rich and powerful, and the poor and powerless. While Kevin woos a student-escort in English, Belly-button and Pickle wonder where in the world New York is. While County Representative Kao (Chen Yi-wen) and the Deputy Speaker (Lee Yung-feng) strut and shout, Belly-button and Pickle hunch and falter. As Belly-button tells it to Pickle, “Your boss’ name is Kevin, my name’s Belly-button. What a difference.”

It is perhaps the unabashed extent to which the film portrays privilege, exacerbated by Huang’s sardonic voice-over, that stops The Great Buddha+ short of becoming rhetoric. Kevin’s dashboard footages for instance, rendered in colour, offends the monochrome stillness of the rest of the film. Things are too laughable, too obscene, and too slippery to hold together in an argument.

Near the end of the film, Pickle makes an unannounced visit to Belly-button’s home. It is this visit which prompts the commentary by Huang quoted in the first line of this article. Like Pickle, viewers may never know Belly-button outside of the recyclables he transports, the leftover drinks he guzzles, and his fondness for claw machines. Through Pickle's intrusion, Huang suggests a Belly-button who sits in the comfort of his home looking up at the universe he pieces together. Sugar-apple, who has but a single line in the film, is a man at his wit’s ends, whom Belly-button encounters in a scrapyard, are similarly enigmatic and unexplained.

At the close, with the exit of Huang’s voice-over, viewers are left seeking answers from Pickle, the only one who remains on screen. Traversing the rubble, Pickle arrives at the needle in the haystack. This time, the audience laughs quietly.       

Review by Teenli Tan
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