Pickle (Cres Chuang) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen) are two broke, down-and-out drudges whose lives are as exciting and meaningful as their names might suggest. Pickle works as a night security guard at a metalworks manufacturing giant Buddha statues; Belly Button collects cans and bottles for a recycling plant. In the evenings, Belly Button visits Pickle’s office and hangs out for hours, munching expired convenience store meals, pawing over suspiciously sticky porno mags, and watching TV. In the opening scenes of Hsin-yao Huang’s dark comedy The Great Buddha +, he paints a Beckett-esque portrait of these two nobodies trapped in an eternal purgatory of boredom and blue-collar squalor. If Pickle’s TV didn’t break one night, one could imagine them reliving the same day over and over again for the rest of their lives. But Pickle’s TV does break, and in the absence of anything else to do, Belly Button suggests his friend break into his boss’ car and steal the HD cards from the dashcam.
Enter Kevin Huang (Leon Dai): rich, haughty, Western-educated, sexually ravenous. His dashcam videos reveal a long string of affairs with prostitutes and escorts. We never see any of the sex, but the audio leaves very, VERY little to the imagination. For a time, Pickle and Belly Button live vicariously through Kevin’s dashcam hookups. At least until they witness Kevin brutally assaulting—and perhaps even murdering—one of his lovers. Now the two must figure out what happened, whether or not Kevin knows they have his HD cards, and perhaps most importantly, whether they care enough to do anything about it.
The Great Buddha + is a film of admirable ambition, but ambition alone does not a good film make. The film is incredibly frustrating in its constant shiftings of tone: the first part plays like a documentary, the second like a Rear Window thriller, the final like a syrupy melodrama about loss and friendship that’s at total odds with the rest of the film. At times the film’s omnipresent dark humor acts as a successful cohesive between the more jarring breaks in tone, particularly a hilarious sequence where a factory visit by one of Kevin’s more unreasonable clients devolves into a passive-aggressive insult fight. But the pieces fail to completely come together.
The most fascinating part of The Great Buddha + is its observations on economic disparity in Taiwanese society. Take the film’s central gimmick, its cinematography. Most of the film is shot in bleakly stark black-and-white. But the dashcam videos are all in vivid color. Many might dismiss this technique as a paltry stylistic flourish, but it’s actually a fiendishly clever comment on the stagnation of Taiwanese poverty as compared to the jet-set lifestyle of the wealthy: the monotony of Pickle and Belly Button’s impoverished lives has literally sucked the color out of their world, so much so that they can barely be bothered by witnessing a potential murder. Only the rich and corrupt have the free time, energy, and means to enjoy the world as it truly is. This is good food for thought, but it deserves a better film.