Thursday 14 March 2013

Movie Review: Heaven And Earth (1993)

Oliver Stone's final chapter in his Vietnam trilogy is a letter of apology. Heaven And Earth pushes the war to the background, and delves into the perspective of the often forgotten rural villagers caught in the cross-fire and paying the highest price for a conflict between others.

Le Ly Hyslip (Hiep Thi Le) lives with her family of rice farmers in rural Vietnam. As a girl she witnesses the end of one conflict against the occupying French army, and as a young woman her life is again severely disrupted by a new conflict, this time a civil war with American involvement. Her father (Haing S. Ngor) struggles to hold the family together by emphasizing the need to respect the spirits of ancestors and  attachment to the land. Le Ly's more pragmatic mother (Joan Chen) keeps the home functioning and does her best to raise her children into adults.

The village is soon caught in the middle of the new conflict, and Le Ly's brothers join the Viet Cong. With the South Vietnamese army and their American advisors controlling the day but the Viet Cong dominant at night, Le Ly has to manufacture a two-faced existence, but the war eventually catches up with her. She is held prisoner, tortured, then raped. Having brought shame to her village she relocates to Saigon to work as a servant, but an ill-advised liaison with her married master results in a pregnancy and more shame. Le Ly eventually finds what appears to be a promising relationship with US Marine Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), but the escape route out of the horrors of her own country carries its own harrowing challenges.

Based on Le Ly Hyslip's true life experiences, Heaven And Earth is not an easy film to appreciate. Stone's objective is to place the faceless victims of war at the centre of his story, and by definition the narrative lacks anything that resembles a traditionally defined arc or heroism. This is a slow-moving story of the agony imposed on simple rice farmers who have lived simple lives for generations. Le Ly struggles and survives with deep scars, and it is the scars that Stone is interested in, questioning through her story the value of any conflict that causes such ever lasting damage on an entire people.

Heaven And Earth runs for 140 minutes, and the pacing is slow, deliberate and descends into arduous. There are plenty of artistic shots of the countryside, sunrises and sunsets, temples, agricultural fields and farmers at work, Stone working hard to recreate a place where time is measured in growing seasons, and values are defined by generations of long-deceased ancestors who ploughed the fields so that their descendants can also derive life from the same fields. It's all very pretty, but Heaven and Earth at times becomes a cultural lesson at an art gallery rather than a movie.

The central performance by newcomer Hiep Thi Le is patchy. She does better in the earlier, Vietnam-set scenes, but mostly struggles against a weakening script when the drama relocates to the United States and shifts to interaction with Steve's family. If there was an intent to show the rise from the ashes of a self-confident business woman, it is bludgeoned by Stone focusing on a rapidly disintegrating home life. Tommy Lee Jones adds heft in a relatively small role, while Debbie Reynolds is underused as his mom.

Despite the weaknesses, Heaven And Earth occasionally climbs to some commanding emotional peaks. Once back in the United States, Le Ly and Steve need to confront their demons, the unwillingly oppressed and the clueless oppressor, both severely damaged, both nursing immense grief, and both with questionable reasons to continue living. Hiep and Jones shine in a draining face to face encounter where the horrid pain of the conflict oozes out in excruciating drips. Between Heaven And Earth is real life, corrupted into a living hell by senseless war.

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