From the Caravan Journals: February 2001. Departing Thailand, we had a choice between diverting to Angkor Wat in Cambodia or to Hanoi. I have always regretted missing Angkor Wat, spiritual epicenter of Southeast Asia, about which I have found no movies, but I have never regretted going to Vietnam. We were there in 2001, soon after the country re-opened its doors to visitors from the West. Almost immediately, we were informed that while the U.S. had devastated this country during the “American War,” it was the French who were most cruel in the colonial period ending in 1954. I suppose we were meant to feel better and indeed the people were exceptionally welcoming. As we entered Hanoi, with its moldering but still beautiful French Colonial architecture, there were vendors lining the streets everywhere we looked. When our inexperienced young guide was asked about this paradox, he replied proudly, “We are building a communist society with a market economy.” After Hanoi, we went to beautiful Ha Long Bay.
The classic film on the French occupation of Vietnam is Indochine (say Indo-sheen), a view of 20th Century colonialism seen through the eyes of the anxious elite. The broad setting is French Indochina in the 1930s. Though the name refers generally to the whole peninsula between India and China, it is a more specific designation for the French colonial territory incorporating today’s Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The French held the area from 1893 until the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. After that, the Americans came and colonialism lost its veneer of Old World charm.
This French film, starring Catherine Deneuve, tells the tale of an upper class woman and a naval officer, named Jean-Baptiste, who engage in a passionate love affair. Much of the narrative is delivered by Deneuve in the intense voiceover style characteristic of French films of the time. Deneuve runs a rubber plantation in the Saigon area, and has an adopted Vietnamese daughter, whom she has named Camille. The officer saves the girl’s life and she falls in love with him. The spotlight will remain on the French characters while the Vietnamese, except for Camille, will be background. The drama revolving around this family triangle moves to Ha Long Bay and intensifies inexorably over the next 20 years or so. An old Vietnamese woman observes, “I’ll never understand French people’s love stories.”
After Ha Long Bay, Camille and her older lover find refuge with an itinerant acting troupe traveling on wagons. Accounting for their freedom of movement across borders, they explain, “Actors are free and neutral since centuries.” Much later, the troupe will be seen playing the tragic “Legend of Camille and Jean-Baptiste” in the Chinese style on a makeshift stage.
The brutality of the French subjugation of the Indochinese is on view here, and the fear that they will find the inspiration to throw off the yoke of repression is ever-present. Camille becomes a communist toward the end of the film and is involved in the expulsion of the French from Vietnam in 1954. One era is over and another begins. This is a very long and beautiful movie.
The Quiet American (2002)
Based on the novel by Graham Greene, the film is set in 1952 Saigon. It was shot on location in the city with great care to capture the reality of the time and place. The action is narrated by Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a foreign correspondent for a British newspaper who takes pride in remaining neutral and reporting the facts. It is two years before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the communists are waging guerrilla warfare against the occupiers in the south. Caine meets an American businessman named Pyle and invites him home for drinks with his Vietnamese mistress (Đỗ Thị Hải Yến). Pyle will be revealed as a CIA agent working to destabilize both French and communist positions in the region and to advance American interests. Fowler cannot marry the woman he loves because his British wife will not agree to a divorce. Pyle steals her away with a promise of marriage and relocation to America. The humiliated Fowler clandestinely works his revenge. This film is not to be confused with The Ugly American (1963), which starred Marlon Brando as the insensitive American ambassador to a fictional country in Southeast Asia.
There was a 1958 movie called The Fugitive, based on this same novel. It was not considered a success partly because of its infidelity to the book. The DVD provides a timeline and other historical materials on the French occupation of Indochina and the subsequent American War.
Writing this segment of MovieJourneys led to the discovery of movies made by Tran Anh Hung. He was born in Vietnam and escaped at the age of twelve after the fall of Saigon in 1975. His studies of filmmaking in France have produced a unique blend of his two cultures.
The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)
Tran Anh Hung’s superb work was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Opening in Saigon in 1951, it follows the life of a young girl sent from her village to work for a well-to-do family. It is the time of the French occupation, though the evidence of colonial influence is muted here. The first hour of the film is merely a tone poem on the girl’s life as a servant to the family. The minimal drama comes when the father takes the family’s money, as he has done twice before, and goes off by himself. Toward the end, the film skips ahead ten years and the girl goes to work for a cultured pianist/composer. His fiancé becomes jealous of the servant girl and the man proves her right. The genius of this director is not so much in drama or character development, as it is in his attention to the small beauties of everyday Vietnamese reality. This same director made The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), set in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Between these two films, he went to the other extreme and made Cyclo (1995), about a young man’s struggle to survive on the streets of postwar Saigon.
Films about the Vietnam War will be found in another edition of MovieJourneys. One of the more illuminating and most derided movies about this war is The Green Berets (1968), in which John Wayne makes his best effort to represent American courage and determination in its mission of turning back communism on its own ground. The film did poorly with the critics but performed well at the box office. It became a standard bearer for those who advocated the correctness of the American decision to fight this offshore battle against the evils of communism. For others, it was the twilight of the John Wayne worldview.
We were scheduled to go into Myanmar (formerly Burma) from Thailand but a shooting war at the border caused us to be turned back for a brief sidetrip to Laos. There have been similar circumstances on the border with Cambodia.
Cambodia, home to the ancient Khmer Empire, came to worldwide attention as a marginal battlefield in the Vietnam War. After the war, the country fell into the hands of the tyrant, Pol Pot, and became one of the many scenes of wholesale massacre of citizens that have disfigured the 20th Century.
The Killing Fields (1984)
This film is based on a 1980 NY Times Magazine article, by Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), about his coverage of the hostilities in Cambodia from 1972 to 1975. He was forced to leave the country as the Khmer Rouge swept into power and to abandon his friend and colleague, Dith Pran. Cambodia descended into barbarism. This is a maddening film, which fails to include the viewer in the information loop of many of its scenes. On the other hand, it is an authentic portrait of the panic and confusion of this perilous time. In the film, Schanberg is not a very likable character, but the affection between the two professional friends rings true. After Schanberg departs for New York, the center of gravity shifts to Pran and follows his ordeal in “re-education” labor camps leading to his eventual escape in 1979 – through the Killing Fields and into Thailand. Location filming was done in Thailand. What is most memorable in the film is the brutality in the faces of the very young soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. Through the vacant look in these eyes, we see the plight of people around the globe who have lost their model of Civilization. These boys are the tattered remnants of the once great Khmer people, who ruled this land a thousand years ago. See also The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), set in Indonesia.
Rice People (1994)
A rural Cambodian family with seven daughters tends a small number of rice paddies. The father is injured by a poisonous thorn while plowing and dies. The mother must take responsibility for the rice farm. Most of the children are too young to help. The mother cannot cope with the strain and begins to fall apart. After a night where she goes berserk, the villagers build a bamboo cage and put her inside. Her condition worsens and finally she is taken away in a cart to be turned over to doctors in the distant city. The oldest daughter must become the head of the family. When the mother returns, she is no better and must be confined to her cage once again. After a time, it looks as though she might be improving, but suddenly she runs off across the rice fields in fear of an imaginary snake. The End. This is a deeply atmospheric portrait of life in a Cambodian village after the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
No trailer available.
The Missing Picture (2013)
This is an autobiographical narrative of life in Cambodia during the time of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, 1975 to 1979. The horrific story of mass killings is told with newsreel clips and a large number of small clay figures. In contrast to the news footage, the toy figures underscore the fact that these are childhood memories for the writer-director. His purpose is to fill in a picture of atrocity in the 20th-century that had been missing from the public record.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2014)
This documentary film by John Pirozzi traces the influence of rock’n roll and other elements of Western culture on Cambodian youth from the 1950s into the 70s. It all came to a halt in 1975 with the rise of the Khmer Rouge, inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Two million people were killed.
Myanmar (formerly Burma)
It has been difficult to find English language films on the history and culture of Burma (today Myanmar). The name of the country was changed in 1989. Apparently there are many who still cling to the old name either from nostalgia for a rich past or resentment of the regime that chose the new name.
Beyond Rangoon (1994)
John Boorman has made a movie that wants to make the public aware of the harsh repressions perpetrated by the military government in Burma. His strategy it is to build an action-adventure story around a female hero named Laura Bowman (played by Patricia Arquette). The Burmese government was aggressively opposed to the making of this film. The name of the country was changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989.
Laura is on a tour with her sister (Frances McDormand), trying to forget a tragedy in which her husband and young son were killed. Spalding Gray is the tour guide. The year is 1988. Late one night in Rangoon, Laura wakes up and goes for a walk. She gets caught up in a demonstration supporting Aung San Suu Kyi (say “Chee”), champion of democracy and the embodiment of hope for the people of Burma. Laura runs afoul of the police for breaking curfew and then discovers her passport is missing. They will not let her fly with her tour group to Bangkok.
She now embarks on a fast-paced series of adventures beyond Rangoon, finding allies among those who fight against the government repressions. Companioning with an older man called “the Professor,” she learns something of the Theravada Buddhist culture of Burma. After witnessing atrocities, they are chased through the jungle and shot at. She is a doctor and performs surgery on the wounded professor while on a river raft.
Returning to Rangoon on the river, they find the city in full revolt. Caught up in the rioting, she finds herself in the middle of another massacre. Despairing that the world will never know what happened here, she climbs onto the back of a truck and escapes with other refugees. They are trying to get to Thailand. Soldiers are shooting everyone who tries to cross the border. Most of the group manages to cross the river into Thailand in a hail of gunfire. On the opposite shore, Laura feels she has found her place in life and goes immediately to work in a field hospital.
A print legend says that Aung San Suu Kyi won an election by an overwhelming majority but the military refused to hand over power and she has been under house arrest since 1990. She won the Nobel Prize in 1991.
No trailer available.