The Great Buddha+: A Rocky Landing, by Jeremy Elder
The audience response to Huang Hsin-yao’s The Great Buddha+ can be best encapsulated by the old woman in the theater who left the screening early and whispered to me, “I’m sorry to squeeze past you, it’s just this movie isn’t very good.” In many ways, this woman made a rash claim, but it is also very easy to agree with her. Huang is a documentarian taking a bold leap toward narrative film and he doesn’t exactly nail the landing. The movie has very strong narrative elements, but continually gets muddied by a lack of focus. This can be resultant of poor directing, but it is more likely a result of Hsin-Yao’s propensity for documentary film. The Great Buddha began as a short film in 2014, and maybe that’s where this story should have been left. To fill the extra hour of time, Huang includes a meandering plot and pedestrian stabs at large issues such as class. Especially to a Western audience, it was not a gripping story that demands your attention throughout. Instead, this was a movie that experimented in new forms and artistry that, above else, shows promise of a great narrative director.
The film shows us two lower-class citizens, Pickle and Belly Button. They are given a glimpse into the scandalous life of the upper class when they watch dashcam footage of Pickle’s boss, Kevin Huang. This premise has that gripping nature that has potential to drive the rest of the film. However, the filmmaker seems to get distracted, as if following a butterfly, into different facets of life in Taiwan. This is the documentarian shining through, diving into an array of topics spread amongst different characters while struggling to find a core.
Despite any of the above claims, audiences should not aim to leave the theater upset or even dissatisfied. While the film seems to struggle in certain aspects, Huang makes choices that are extremely commendable. The Great Buddha+ accomplishes the goal of creating a new voice in filmmaking. Huang includes his own voice in the film by literally narrating the film. The Great Buddha+ is bold and delightfully challenging, but seems to miss the mark as a film overall. Audiences should be most excited for the future of Huang and what his mind will bring to the zeitgeist of Taiwanese film.