Between Said and Unsaid: The Great Buddha+

The storyline of The Great Buddha+ cannot be simpler: two struggling misfits, Pickle and Belly Button, enjoy cheap pleasures in the grey guardroom at a Buddha statue factory by peeking at dashcam footages that document the colorful private life of the factory owner, Kevin, until they discover a dark secret they cannot handle. However, following up the voyeurs’ thrill, it reveals many of the complex aspects of Taiwanese society, albeit at its seemingly unambitious ease.

Though it sounds like a barrier for international audiences, the essence of The Great Buddha+ lies largely in its use of language. From the very beginning, director Huang Hsin-yao’s narration in Taiwanese dialect, Taiwanese Hokkien, immediately awakens the local audience to the nostalgic feeling of early Taiwanese movies. While Mandarin now functions as the official language on the tiny island and hence in most current films, the deliberate use of Taiwanese itself sets the tone of its localization and even the first glimpse of the absurd in The Great Buddha+.

With the help of various languages spoken by the characters, sarcasm is subtlety played out in the film, implying the sharp distinction between the social classes in Taiwan. The unrefined use of “motherfucker,” a signature vulgarism in Taiwanese Hokkien vernacular, is used frequently by the lower-class people as a contrast to Kevin and his upper-class gang who use polished Mandarin and even occasionally English. Reflecting the political status quo in Taiwan, the use of Mandarin or Hokkien in the film implies the difference between the cosmopolitan and the rural; or the Chinese mainlander and the Taiwanese locals that persist even in the 21st Century. On the other hand, the Buddhist sister who sways between Mandarin and Hokkien features the perfect hypocrisy; her use of Taiwanese Hokkien contains absolutely no “motherfuckers” but only recited “Amitabha”, yet the words she utters turn out to be more hurtful than any filthy language.

Derived from the previous short film The Great Buddha, created by director Huang in 2014, The Great Buddha+ owes its title to the use of “+” in the sense of an iPhone 6+, which already demonstrates an intentional casualness towards filmmaking. Throughout this upgraded version, Huang’s cold, inhuman voice serves as an awkward awareness of breaking the fourth wall, reminding us of the absurdity of each scene we see through the camera, including the camera within the camera. Sarcastically, the more amusing the narrator’s language is, the more misery it brings up from the abrupt truth in society. As if it isn’t obvious enough, the contrast between the monochrome reality and the colored cam footages reassures the artificiality of the entire film, which at the same time embodies the often-quoted line from The States of Things by Wim Wenders: “Life is in color, but black and white is more realistic.”

In the end, these characters so true to life that become memorable and raise sympathy from the audience: an unnoticeable recycling collector, a dozing-off security guard, an inert shop clerk or a homeless deadbeat, one might encounter any of them on a daily basis without even realizing it. All of a sudden, the surrealistic touch of the ambiguous ending alters the illusion of a realistic portrayal, for which the director clearly has no intention to offer a rational, satisfying explanation. What matters the most is that the story is being told, whether as the narrative fictional film or through exposure on the news. In fact, the beautiful one-shot scene indicating Belly Button’s destiny already says more than any dialogue in the film.

Selected as Taiwan’s official Oscar submission, The Great Buddha+ bitterly satirizes the local corrupt politics, religious hypocrisy, and the cruel barrier between rich and poor. As a black comedy with a surrealistic touch, The Great Buddha+ undoubtedly makes for an extraordinary case of its kind.

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