Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.
The Great Buddha+ is so indebted to many cinematic influences – the deadpan comedy of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and its varied emulations, the early meta-movies of Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few – the fact that it coheres together so brilliantly is something of a miracle. Director Hsin-yao Huang adapted his own prize-winning short, The Great Buddha, adding the “+” to his feature version to cheekily acknowledge the role technology plays in his condemnation of class structures in his native Taiwan.
The narrative proper centers on Pickle (Cres Chuang) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen), two perverted members of the proletariat who become embroiled in a murder plot after entertaining themselves with dashcam footage from Pickle’s supremely rich “artist” boss Kevin Huang (Leon Dai). Buddha+ could have easily been approached as a stylish genre exercise, but the filmmaker enriches it with endless cinematic invention. The first is his voiceover announcement that he, Hsin-yao Huang the director, will serve as a guide to the film. The narrative and thematic digressions he voices throughout the film are just a few of the rich Brechtian distancing techniques he freely deploys.
Another innovative choice is the blown-out color of the dashcam footage that interrupts the film’s sumptuous black-and-white digital cinematography – the best this side of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) – that captures the natural beauty of rural Taiwan alongside the rotted-out hovels for its forgotten inhabitants. Like Amirpour’s subversive genre-bender, The Great Buddha+ also contains threads of political commentary, here about the widening chasm between rich and poor. Pickle and Bell often talk about their financial aspirations, hilariously undercooked to the point that director Huang points out their laughable futility. "Birth is eight-tenths of destiny," Pickle declares at one point.
The film gets its title from a towering Buddha statue Kevin is constructing in his residence-cum-art-factory compound. During the film’s funniest scene – Buddha+ indeed expertly balances potent satire with vulgar comedy – Kevin’s clients pray to the statue while simultaneously criticizing its wonky features. Its makers and those who brokered the deal then awkwardly attempt to sell the work’s shortcomings, and the moment reveals itself as the filmmaker’s condemnation of the intersection of art, religion, and commerce.
What they don’t know is that their ultimate religious icon has become a vessel for a nefarious activity, and soon the director announces that the film is at its midpoint. The change is palpable as gears shift from a nose-thumbing missive that is nevertheless creatively engaging to a somber tale about the abuses of power that oppress the underprivileged. Kevin’s easy evasion of police interrogation thanks to his public persona, along with Belly Button’s violent roadside arrest – the latter shown through dashcam footage and later in an audience-privileging bird’s-eye shot – are reminders that these imbalances are universal problems. In its graceful and mysterious final act, though, The Great Buddha+ suggests that higher forces may be working to realign the injustices. It’s a hopeful move for a film that has already portrayed humanity at both its best and worst.
The Great Buddha+ screens Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 6:35 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema.