The following is a post I wrote for anonlineuniverse.com‘s regular “Best Films Set In…” series. Be sure to check out the link for a great film blog!
THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (Mùi đu đủ xanh)
Director Tran Anh Hung is without doubt the most gifted film-maker in the relatively brief history of Vietnamese cinema, having garnered awards at numerous festivals, including two at Cannes in 1993 for his debut feature The Scent of Green Papaya. The film tells the story of young servant girl Mui, beginning with her initial employment at age 10 (played by Man San Lu) before skipping ahead ten years at the halfway point as she goes to work for Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), the object of her adolescent affections. The two acts of the film stand more or less distinct from one another, with the first being a meditation on mourning and loss, and the second a delicate and sweet Cinderella tale. Khuyen and the adult Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) co-exist in an almost wordless world of mutually silent longing, with the music of Khuyen’s piano delivering all the emotional beats that are otherwise missing given the lack of dialogue. The Scent of Green Papaya is also a marvel of set design, offering a glimpse at Saigon before the impending destruction and massive influx of people during the war. In later sections the roar of jet engines foreshadow the coming conflict, yet Mui’s beautiful poetry reading in the closing scene can be read as a hopeful metaphor regarding the state of the city, and indeed Vietnam itself.
CYCLO (Xích Lô)
For his second film, Cyclo, Tran reached even greater heights of critical acclaim, picking up the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice International Film Festival. Where his debut was more concerned with the passage of time, Cyclo is all about place, and the Saigon of 1995 is a far cry from the peaceful city of The Scent of Green Papaya. Early on, Tran captures the spirit of the city with startling accuracy, and the social realism style of the film, not to mention the plot itself (concerning a young cyclo driver [Le Van Loc] who becomes embroiled in the gang lifestyle following the theft of his rickshaw), takes huge influence from Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette. The fabulous location details build the film’s grounded tone, offering a bleak look at the realities of post-war Saigon, and as such Tran’s two films work as interesting bookends to the war period. Tran once again uses his wife Yen-Khe in a major role, and she delivers a beautiful, tragic performance alongside a young Tony Leung as the local gang leader. Cyclo‘s circular narrative paints a harrowing portrait, with many shadowy references to the war, and how it has shaped the city the Tran so clearly feels an affinity with.
THE QUIET AMERICAN
The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene’s classic novel, is in truth a somewhat mediocre film, yet at its heart lies a shadowy story of deception and intrigue, flashes of Greene’s wonderfully expressive writing, and a tremendous central performance from Michael Caine. Obviously some things have been changed from the source novel (published in 1955) to reflect the horror that was to come in Vietnam, yet the prescience shown by Greene in his critique of increased American involvement in Indochina during the last days of French colonialism is fascinating. Perhaps the largest problem the film has lies with Brendan Fraser as the titular American, Pyle. Fraser is just a little too wholesome and innocent to pull off the character, who in the novel was much more mysterious, and when the moment comes in the film for Pyle to show a little edge, Fraser just doesn’t have the range. It’s another interesting snapshot of the city however, and there’s enough in The Quiet American, particularly with Caine in career-best form, to make the film worthwhile. Incidentally, there is a 1958 version of the film directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which I was unable to track down.
As much as I wanted to avoid war films specifically in this list, to not mention Apocalypse Now in a list about great films set in Vietnam would be an egregious oversight. Chances are if you find yourself reading this then you’ve already seen Coppola’s troubled masterpiece, so I won’t go too much into detail. Using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the framework for a Vietnam war film was a stroke of genius for screenwriter John Milius, as he and Coppola strip away much of the controversial politics surrounding the tragic conflict and leave audiences with one of the most poignant anti-war films ever created. Personally I prefer the original 1979 cut, as several of the additions in the 2001 redux seem largely unnecessary. The French plantation sequence in particular is a divisive insertion, offering some interesting historical insight into the days of Indochinese colonialism, yet it grinds the already lengthy narrative to a halt for such a long time that it begins to feel a little overindulgent. That said, it’s hard to diminish such a unique and powerful film, especially in light of the tortuous conditions involved in its production (see the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness for the full story).
RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PT. 2
Finally, just to prove it’s not all introspection and subtlety where Vietnam is concerned, we come to Rambo: First Blood, pt. 2. From a script by James Cameron at a time where he was less concerned with conservationism and romance, the second in the Rambo series jettisons the thoughtful and gritty tone of the first film in favour of outrageous 80s action lunacy. The decadence of the decade most obviously manifested itself in action cinema, and First Blood, pt. 2 is up there with the nuttiest films the time had to offer. Stallone returns as ex-special forces soldier John Rambo, supported by the hilariously deadpan Richard Crenna as Col. Trautman and a gallery of 80s character tough guys including Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, and Martin Kove. The Rambo of the Reagan era has evolved into a superhuman killing machine, and as such the film is a rippling, blood-soaked romp filled with wonderfully cheesy lines, unrestrained pyrotechnics, and a whole basketful of questionable racial politics. It’s difficult to imagine a time when this type of film was taken seriously, and as such the bang on parody in Hot Shots Part Deux is now strangely redundant. This film doesn’t need to be spoofed; it’s already funny enough.