How different are the lives of President Donald Trump and your favorite Starbucks barista, really?
On Tuesday at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles, Taiwanese director Hsin-yao Huang argued that they may be more similar than you think. Huang was at the Landmark for a screening of his black comedy “The Great Buddha+,” Taiwan’s entry into the Oscar foreign film race.
“We are all on the existential boat even though at times we all think we are so different,” Huang told TheWrap’s Steve Pond with the help of a translator.
“The Great Buddha+” aims to steer the existential boat by analyzing two lower-income Taiwanese men: Pickle and Belly Button. Pickle is a night security guard at a bronze statue factory in Taiwan who spends his free time “reading” porn magazines and playing in a local band part-time. Belly Button, who collects and sells recycling as a form of income, will often push Pickle to take advantage of his boss, Kevin, while he’s gone on business trips. When Pickle caves one night and the two stumble upon dash-cam footage of Kevin’s Mazda, they become addicted to seeing what the life of someone out of their tax bracket is really like.
For Pickle and Belly Button, the dash cam they watch at night becomes their means of voyeurism — of experiencing a life other than their own. Huang’s goal was to recreate the feeling he has while reading tabloids and magazines, where these larger-than-life stories are told before your eyes. But don’t be fooled, because just like what Pickle and Belly Button witness on the dash cam, the lives of the rich and famous may not be as perfect as you may think, the director said.
The reason why it’s called “The Great Buddha+” is because Kevin’s company Globe is making a statue of Buddha for an upcoming religious assembly. Huang said god-like figures in religion like the Buddha and Jesus Christ are praised for never wanting riches and fame. But, as many of us look up to these deities, we ourselves are doing the exact opposite of what they did. Whether you’re someone like Pickle or someone like Kevin, at the end of the day, we are all in search of material wealth until our final day arrives.
“The whole idea of the Buddha and religious faith in general is that there is a very particular system that defines our lives like laws and legislation,” Huang said. “It is something that both confines and defines us. So it’s important to question these powers and systems.”
Much of the movie was filmed in black-and-white, outside of the dash cam footage, which is shown in color. Huang said he used this technique to further emphasize the fact that they are peeking into a life outside of their own reality, where Belly Button often struggles to make money and Pickle can’t seem to satisfy his ailing mother.
Huang’s background is in documentary filmmaking. As he prepared to expand one of his shorts into his first feature film, Huang said his producer told him to stay true to his voice. So, just like in his documentaries, Huang added narration and long takes that observe an entire interaction play out. Each scene you see in the film, he said, is a “distillation of things I observed in my life.”
And while making a narrative film was daunting for Huang, who suggests he’ll step back into documentaries for his next project, the success of “The Great Buddha+” means he won’t rule out making another in the future.
“The Great Buddha+” will open at the Cinelounge in Los Angeles on Friday.