When describing the emotion he puts into his work, director Trần Anh Hùng states that he wants audiences to be able to understand his overall life perspective when watching his films. He wants them to have an experience that captures the feelings and hardships he has seen and lived through1. These thoughts echo how it feels to see Tony Leung Chiu-Wai onscreen as he enters Trần’s Xích lô (Cyclo, 1995), dourly, with a cigarette in his mouth, wielding a specific sadness that never seems to subside. Cyclo is the second film in a loose series that retrospectively became known as the “Vietnam Trilogy” and was preceded by Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya, 1993) and followed by Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng (The Vertical Ray of the Sun, 2000). The film situates itself within a mid-1990s poverty-stricken Sài Gòn, where people are forced into a world of crime and violence – not of choice, but of situation. It is a film that Trần decries is “about the loss of innocence, and the menace that steals innocence”2. As a person also of the Vietnamese diaspora, my thoughts on this film strengthen and gain a deeper level of weight and understanding each time I watch it.

Trần left Vietnam with his family for Laos in 1967, before travelling to France after the fall of Sài Gòn in 1975. This loss of homeland was, notably, a heavy one and a choice millions of Vietnamese people achingly decided to make – risking their lives to flee the war and its aftermath. For myself, as a child of two parents born in Vietnam (one who fled and another who flew), growing up in Australia meant that I have always been desperate to understand what it is I have missed, lost, and gained by growing up in another country. Trần has directly explored this diasporic theme across his career, aiming to recapture an intimate relationship with his homeland through the films he creates. In relation to this, Leslie Barnes has noted that Trần’s work benefits from being viewed through an autoethnographic lens. Cyclo itself encourages us to think critically of how it constructs meaning, and notably, captures a “working-class poor” post-war and post-colonisation Vietnam3.

Cyclo was the first Vietnamese film I ever watched, and, bizarrely, also the first time I had seen Tony Leung Chiu-Wai onscreen. The film’s title character, the Cyclo (Xích lô), is a poor, orphaned boy growing up in Sài Gòn, forced into a life of crime when his rented source of income, the eponymous cyclo, is stolen from him – a scenario inevitably inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948). Also vital to this film is the character of the Poet (Leung). The Poet, who seldom speaks, is a character Trần noted “considers himself dead to himself and society”4. This quality is captured most pointedly in an epic nightclub scene soundtracked by Radiohead’s “Creep”. The Poet doubles as a small-time criminal, operating as a pimp for several Vietnamese girls (including the Cyclo’s sister), and as a supervisor to the Cyclo. To allow for his presence in the film to not be hindered or limited by his inability to speak Vietnamese, Leung would occasionally murmur words phonetically. His character seems to constantly be in quiet contemplation, while the viewer is given access to his poetic inner monologue on the soundtrack. It is perhaps unsurprising that a director might consider a non-native speaker of Leung’s ilk to perform a role that requires a complex level of emotional nuance. This choice was also a commercial one as Leung was coming off the back of internationally celebrated films like John Woo’s Lat sau san taam (Hard-Boiled, 1992) and Wong Kar-Wai’s Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994). 

One of the other stars of the film is Trần Nữ Yên Khê, another person of the Vietnamese diaspora, and Trần Anh Hùng’s wife. Her presence next to Leung feels iconic and matches that of many of the stalwarts who accompany Leung in his more well-known films. Nevertheless, it is surprising to note, as of 2023, that Khê has only featured in a handful of films, most of which were directed by her husband. Coerced by the Poet into sex work, Khê’s role as the Cyclo’s sister is one freighted with heaviness, and these scenes include some of the film’s most uncomfortable moments. Throughout Cyclo, a central theme explored is the loss of innocence. Both the Cyclo and his sister experience the feeling of having their innocence taken away from them. While bearing witness to this, the Poet grieves and laments his own loss of innocence at the expense of crime. But when he finally contemplates his guilt for allowing the Cyclo’s sister to be assaulted, he puts an end to his anguish in a solemn and lyrical self-immolation. 

In interviews, Trần has spoken of his need to capture the daily life of a city directly impacted by the historical odyssey that led him there5. To humanise the daily lives of the people suffering under poverty, one must think about what was lost due to the impact of the war and the legacy of colonialism, as well as all that might encourage someone to see and approach the world through a lens like the Poet’s. The visceral legacy of the war is not lost on anyone. Each scene featuring an ultraviolent act, helicopters falling on the street, or the sounds of planes as they fly through the air, reminds us of what has been and why things are as they are now. The film doesn’t explicitly mention conditions like displacement, the need to escape Vietnam, the sordid impact of war or the stark poverty stemming from the struggle to exist in a post-war economy, but its depiction of the city suggests all these things. The dichotomy between this poverty and the world of the privileged is captured in the film’s final moments in a stark pan from a pristine five-star hotel to the image of the Cyclo, riding his family through the same streets of Sài Gòn, a place we’ve been immersed in for the entirety of the film. This is the real Sài Gòn.

It is important to grasp the full implications of the film’s diasporic lens. Cyclo is made by a Việt kiều who was raised in France and studied for two years at the Ecole nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière. It was also made by a predominantly French production team. While it did have the full cooperation of the Vietnamese government during production, in the end, the government did not allow the film to be screened in Vietnam. Ultimately it was seen as a “violent” and “unrealistic” “French movie that has nothing to do with Vietnam”6. This governmental objection is disingenuous, as Trần was determined to show the darker reality of contemporary Vietnam from the outset, and the government would have understood this. It is uncertain whether a Vietnamese person living in Vietnam would have been given the appropriate resources and support to make a film like Cyclo at the time – Cyclo is undeniably a work from a diasporic perspective and with varying levels of domestic and French input. As such, while Trần painstakingly tries to observe and understand the city and its people while making this film, it is still the work of an outsider.

As a film intent on capturing an honest glimpse of contemporary Vietnam, the casting of Leung might feel like a peculiar choice. Conceptually, I think Leung’s casting, as an outsider to Vietnam who cannot speak the language, is something that functions exceptionally well in relation to the character moulded for him. The Poet laments his loss of innocence, representing a litany of people worldwide who are encouraged to shapeshift and respond to new and difficult situations. Personally, on my many visits back to the motherland, I often find it bizarre and disorientating when grappling with the diasporic dichotomy that leads one to feel a strong sense of displacement and a lack of belonging. This is something that Tran himself would have been channelling within this trilogy. Leung captures this foreign feeling, metaphorically and emotionally, using his skills as a talented actor and position as an outsider to depict this sense of displacement in the world. The Poet’s sadness, captured visually and with extreme precision by Leung, is also accentuated by his dubbed inner voice, poetic musings that were written by Nguyen Trung Binh.

Xích lô/Cyclo (Vietnam/France/Hong Kong 1995 123 mins)

Prod Co: Canal+/CNC/Cofimage 5… Prod: Christophe Rossignon Dir, Scr: Trần Anh Hùng Phot: Benoît Delhomme Ed: Nicole Dedieu, Claude Ronzeau Prod Des: Benoît Barouh Mus: Tôn-Thât Tiêt

Cast: Lê Vân Lôc, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Trần Nữ Yên Khê, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Hoang Phuc


  1. Trần Anh Hùng – Director Workshop: Ngôn Ngữ Chuyên Biệt Của Điện Ảnh”, YouTube (20 August 2018): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jo43Rx0-hFg.
  2. Dana Thomas, “Cyclo: Missing Saigon”, The Washington Post (15 September 1996): https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/1996/09/15/cyclo-missing-saigon/875463d2-23b8-45b3-9bf9-4d3efcdf1e77/.
  3. Leslie Barnes, “Cinema as Cultural Translation: The Production of Vietnam in Trẩn Anh Hùng’s Cyclo”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 5.3 (2010): 106-128.
  4. Henri Béhar, “Xich lo Press Conference at the 1995 New York Film Festival”, Film Scouts Interviews (10 October 1995): http://www.filmscouts.com/scripts/interview.cfm?File=2759.
  5. Trần in Béhar.
  6. Thomas.

About The Author

Andy Le is a Vietnamese-Australian film writer and radio broadcaster who recently hosted the 3RRR summer show The Fourth Wall – a music show heavily inspired by a love of film. He is often in the mood for eating.

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