HEAVEN AND EARTH—–“I am insulted at the insolence of men. They don’t respect women. I cannot believe such men have known a mother’s love“,Vietnamese war bride Le Ly Hayslip (Hipe Thi Le) confesses to a Buddhist wizard after her ex-Marine American husband (Tommy Lee Jones) goes further off a really deep end. Her dilemma stateside is just the latest trial in years of trauma inflicted on her as an individual, representational of her shattered family, society and culture. Sweeping and intimate, rich in details both gorgeous and ugly, director Oliver Stone’s 1993 conclusion to his powerhouse Vietnam War triptych wrenches emotion from the start, with cinematographer Robert Richardson’s masterly images of ravishing locations in Thailand and Vietnam amplified by Kitaro’s lushly beautiful score.
First the French, then the Viet Cong, next South Vietnamese government troops, finally the Americans. The peaceful village world of seasons and customs, family and tradition is torn asunder by the tides of war, and young Le Ly Hayslip is thrust by fate and karma into horrific circumstances, playing several jarring roles trying to survive.
Stone wrote the screenplay from Hayslip’s memoir “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places”, covering her idyllic childhood, the catastrophic War, escape to the abundance of California, and return to Vietnam 16 years later. Condensing characters (several men into one, played with burning intensity by Jones), Stone packs in a huge amount of incident over a fully engrossing 140 minutes. His vivid, in-your-face indictments Platoon and Born On The Fourth of July dealt with American soldiers, ripped up by the madness of that obscene debacle & disgrace: here he looks with compassion at the cost to Vietnam’s civilians, and the extra misery borne by their women. Honest, painful, inexpressibly sad, a magnificent production in all respects.
All the casting is sterling, a hand-picked group that includes the superb Joan Chen and sorely missed Haing S. Ngor as the stricken parents, but it’s all held tightly together by the captivating Hipe Thi Le. Front and center through an appalling journey into Hell and of the spirit, the natural beauty a true ‘find’, with no prior acting experience: delicate as a petal and strong as wire, she’s wonderful. She could also channel some of her own childhood into the role, as her family had fled Vietnam as ‘boat people’ and she’d had harrowing experiences on the way to refugee camps.*
Critics at the time were lukewarm, and it was the beginning of a pile-on-Oliver curse that’s never gone away, with the establishment backlash to the audacity of JFK dutifully trickling down to their press minions. American audiences showed amnesia and aversion with paltry grosses of $5,900,000. It made about as much abroad, but the cost for all the lavished care—the extensive art direction, location work and equipment— came to $33,000,000, marking it down as a major flop. Thunder was stolen later that year by another gripping war story, Schindler’s List, and this—Stone’s personal favorite among his films—was absurdly ignored with not a single Oscar nomination, a particular insult to Richardson’s magisterial cinematography and Kitaro’s soul-embracing soundtrack.
It’s one powerful experience, a heartbreaker. The difficulty in making an “anti-war” film is that War—the fighting part, with the movement, explosions, valor, narrow escapes, etc.—is visually & aurally exciting. It may be foolish, wasteful, brutal, but it tends to be thrilling to watch—from the safety of a screen, anyway. People may nod and say “yes, how awful” ,but they also wonder “hmm..how would I do?”, as they watch one of their film idols run, jump, act like they’ve been hit. This time out, the view, of the wretched bone-deep sadness and compounded tragedy, borne by innocents, in a politically manufactured abomination, is as effective an anti-war piece of cinema story-telling I’ve ever seen, and this armchair soldier’s been watching movie soldiers blow things up for decades. This one is different. The story of this girl/woman and her people is being repeated at this moment, endured by countless others, in other parts of the globe, and is every bit as terrible and wrong. Anyone not moved by this story isn’t anyone I’d like to sit next to.
With Debbie Reynolds, Conchata Farrell, Vivian Wu, Long Nguyen,Dustin Nguyen, Dale Dye, Mai Nguyen, Bussaro Sanruck, Mai Le Ho, Jeffrey Jones.
* On a lark with friends, soulful 4’11’ beauty Hipe Thi Le was a 21-year old college student when she tested for a part, one of 16,000 people interviewed by scouts for various roles. With no experience, she was chosen by Stone, and he made a perfect call. The real Le Ly Hayslip has a quick cameo. She wrote a second book, “Child Of War, Woman of Peace” and founded two charitable organizations. The lovely Le did more acting and went on to own the China Beach Vietnamese Bistro in Venice, California. Hipe Thi Le passed away from stomach cancer in 2017. She was 46. “Hòa bình với tinh thần của cô.”