For some, the good life always seems a little out of reach, as if they showed up late to the great buffet of life and now all that’s left is a few soggy pastries and the salad someone’s aunt brings every year that no one really likes. Still, even if you know this is all there is, it doesn’t have to be so bad so long as you have good friends and something to do every day. The “heroes” of documentarian Huang Hsin-yao’s fiction feature debut The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Dà fó pǔ lā sī) are exactly this sort – men in late middle age who’ve never quite grown up but have eased into a perpetual boyhood safe in the knowledge that there’s nowhere left for them to grow up to.
“Pickle” (Cres Chuang) is something of a holy fool. His major preoccupation in life is his elderly mother whose increasing medical bills he is continually worrying about paying. He’s taken to banging a drum in a local marching band with a big line in funerals for extra money at which he is terrible but seeing as there’s no one else his job is probably safe for the minute. His “occupation” is nightwatchman at a factory owned by “Kevin” (Leon Dai) – a renowned sculptor working on a giant Buddha statue. Nothing ever happens at the factory at night so no one is very bothered what Pickle does there, which is mostly being “entertained” by his “best friend” Belly Button (Bamboo Chen). Belly Button doesn’t really have a job but earns money through collecting recyclables and selling them on. Looking for a new source of vicarious fun, Belly Button talks Pickle into stealing the SD card from the dash cam on Kevin’s fancy car so they can enjoy riding along with him in their very own private sim. This turns out to be more fun than expected because Kevin is also a womaniser with a thing for car sex even if the cam only captures the audio of his exploits. Nevertheless, the guys inevitably end up seeing something they shouldn’t.
Huang shoots in black and white but switches to vibrant colour for the dash cam footage, somehow implying that nothing is quite so real to guys like Pickle and Belly Button as a fantasy vision of someone else’s glamorous life. After all, if it’s not online it didn’t really happen. Trapped in the gutter of small town life, both men have either failed to move on from or wilfully regressed into a perpetual adolescence in which they waste their days idly on pointless pursuits – leafing through ancient porn mags, gossiping, and eating half frozen curries from half-filled Tupperware boxes. A mild mannered man, Pickle is so innocent that he never quite understands Belly Button’s lewd jokes while Belly Button, who is picked on and belittled by everyone else in town, takes delight in being able to boss him around.
Together the pair of them can only marvel at a man like Kevin with his wealth and talent which allows him to gain the thing they want the most – female company. Kevin, however, is not quite as marvellous as they might assume him to be even if they remain in awe of his caddish treatment of women while perhaps feeling sorry for those unfortunate enough to fall in love with him. In tight with the local bigwigs, Kevin is simply one link in a long chain of bureaucratic corruption in which business is done in the bathhouse surrounded by floozies. Kevin never explicitly lets on whether he knows that Pickle and Belly Button have stumbled on his secret, but their lives begin to change all the same. Their easy nights in the security cabin have gone for good and they feel themselves under threat in a chilling reminder of how easily a little guy can disappear or fall victim to an accident after asking too many questions about a vain and powerful man with money.
Meanwhile, Pickle is left worrying what’ll happen to his mum if he falls out with Kevin. Even if he wanted to speak out about a great injustice, he’d be putting his mother in the firing line. Then again, after a brief visit to Belly Button’s home in which he cocoons himself inside a mini UFO filled with the prizes he’s won from UFO grabber games (he says it’s like “therapy”), Pickle is forced to wonder how well he even knew him – his only friend. As Huang puts it in his melancholy voice over, we might have put men on the moon, but we’ll never be able to explore the universe of other peoples’ hearts.
Huang’s deadpan commentary is among the film’s strongest assets with its New Wave associations and determination to wring wry humour out of the increasingly hopeless world inhabited by Pickle, Belly Button, and their similarly disenfranchised friends. Filled with meta humour and a deep sadness masked by resignation to the futility of life, The Great Buddha+ is a beautifully lensed lament for the little guy just trying to survive in a land of hollow Buddhas and venial charlatans.
Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)