Bus 44 (Cannes)

By Dayyan Eng | Drama
A bus robbery sets off a shocking chain of events...

Written and directed by Dayyan Eng in 2001, the award-winning “Bus 44” is historically significant. The first Chinese short film to win awards at the prestigious Sundance and Venice film festivals, it was selected by special invitation to Cannes as well. It’s easy to see why: though it may be 20 years old, its powerful storytelling still compels in this universal story about justice, complacency, and the interplay between the light and dark sides of human nature.

The story begins with a spare but evocative set of visuals of the empty, remote countryside, where a lone bus travels through the landscape. It’s driven by a young woman, who picks up a young man along the isolated route, and the pair have an easygoing, friendly conversation.

But when the bus picks up a pair of criminals who decide to take advantage of the situation to rob the passengers. What’s worse, they pull the bus driver off to the side and sexually assault her. No one comes to her rescue, with the exception of the young man, who gets stabbed in the leg as he tries to help her. The incident sets off a chain of events that will lead to dark consequences that unfold in unexpected ways.

The narrative has the sense of a parable, with its sparse use of dialogue and its raw, unadorned setting, captured in stunning cinematography and an eye for striking, almost minimal images. The look and feel have a timelessness to it with its raw natural beauty and remote setting and seems like it could take place at any time or place.

And in many ways, the energy of the story is similarly archetypal. We don’t know much about the driver, robbers or helpful young man, and the writing isn’t interested in developing any individual psychology of any one character. Instead, the well-paced narrative functions like an encapsulation of society at large, exploring how the large group reacts to horrific social trauma. Some avoid looking at the violation; others are horrified but paralyzed, and still others pretend nothing is happening. And the one person who tried to intervene suffers for it, seemingly confirming the worst fears of the other onlookers.

But social indifference has its own cost, as exemplified by the film’s powerful thought-provoking ending. The robbers inflicted immense pain and injustice, but one can argue that the callous inaction and lack of compassion were almost just as traumatic as the crime itself, and perhaps allowed the perpetrators to inflict more damage and harm than not.

The role of complacency has certainly been debated and explored in other historical events and phenomena, and their effects are unclear until well after the damage is done. But in the moral parable of “Bus 44,” that monstrous indifference is paid back with an unforgettable, ferocious vengeance, one feels inexorable in how it answers for an unaddressed injustice and will haunt the audience well after viewing.

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