This starts to make sense when we meet the rest of his family. He lives with his elderly grandfather who goes out every day and repairs bicycle tires, even thought his health is failing. There’s an older sister who carries pails of water to restaurants for a living. And there’s a young sister of not more that 7 or 8 who has her own full-time job shining shoes.
"Cyclo" is set in Ho Chi Min City, Viet Nam, and it is the story of the Cyclo boy and his sister and how poverty forces them into crime and degradation.
The opening shot in the film is a head-on shot of the Cyclo boy at work. A "cyclo" is a bicycle taxi, and the boy is following in the footsteps of his father, who also drove one, and was killed by a car. The film is light on narration – we just watch him work, and this accomplishes two things – First, we see how difficult the job is, and second, we get a sense of the city he lives in.
Ah, yes, the city. Very seldom has a city looked grungier and more inhospitable than here. There’s a scene early on where the cyclo boy is threatened by others for working on their turf. His boss, who is known only as "The Madam" warns him that other gangs are protective of their areas.
One day, while stopping to have a leak, his cyclo is stolen, and in trying to get it back he gets beaten up. He reports this back to the Madam, and to enable him to pay for the cycle, he is put under the direction of a gang leader known as "The Poet." His indoctrination into gang life is a harsh one. One day the rest of the gang takes him to watch the handiwork of a man known only as Mr. Lullaby. Mr. Lullaby has some poor unfortunate soul tied to a chair with his face covered in clear tape, and after a bit of banter, slits the man’s throat. The Cyclo boy is sickened by this, but the killer makes him a gift of his switchblade, and the Cyclo boy lays in bed with it that night, touching his face with the knife in a strange fetishist manner.
The older sister, meanwhile, has also drifted into the orbit of the Poet. She becomes a whore, and her encounters with clients are perverse, and again, deeply fetishist. One man forces her to drink water, so he can watch her pee. Another has a foot fetish, and has her put on nylons, which he proceeds to cut off with scissors.
One day the Cyclo boy sees one of the toughs who stole his bike, and tells the rest of the gang. The response surprises him - "He works for the Madam, too" This is never really explored, but it raises the possibility that the bike was stolen just to get a young recruit into the illegal portion of the business.
One night the sister is taken to a fancy disco, and hired out to a wealthy yuppie. The following day, she is beaten and bloody, and one of the other whores sceams at the shaken Poet.
"You bastard! She was a virgin!"
The film cuts directly the roof of a building, where the Poet murders the violent john in a long and relentlessly bloody scene.
The Poet is the enigma of this film. There have been indications that he loves the sister, and the murder would seem to reinforce that, but it’s hard to tell. Like everyone else in the film, the Poet says very little. In any case, it’s safe to say that the rape and murder affect him deeply, because he goes home and torches his place with him still in it.
There is a recurring image of things covered with paint in this film. The Madam has a retarded son who covers him self in yellow paint. The Poet gets nosebleeds, and at one point drops of his blood fall on a white flower. The Cyclo boy tries to calm himself with pills and booze before doing a job, and instead ends up covering himself with blue paint as across the street, the Poets’ apartment goes up in flames.
"Cyclo" is peculiar and difficult film. As I mentioned above, dialogue is scarce, and we are not allowed to get too close to the characters. Cyclo boy, his sister, and the Poet live in a world where life starts out tough, and sometimes gets worse. There is an astounding shot toward the end of the film, where the camera pans over tennis courts, and a swimming pool filled with affluent types, before moving down to the street and picking up the Cyclo boy and his family on a new cycle taxi. The narration tells a story about how the family’s cat came back, and there’s an obvious parallel to the family, which went through a harrowing ordeal and managed to come out the other side. They know the truth, and they would likely tell those people playing tennis – yeah, I’ve been to Hell – It’s just around the corner.