Heaven & Earth (1993), Runtime Ė 140mins, Cert 15.

Director - Oliver Stone.

Writer - Oliver Stone.

Starring - Heip Thi Le, Joan Chen & Tommy Lee Jones.

 

Premise - Le Ly (Heip Thi Le) is a peasant on a Vietnamese farm in the 50's, sheís content with her life, her family and her land. Then an American helicopter lands and her life is forever changed. The Vietnam War has started. Treated badly by both the Vietcong and the Americans, Le Ly moves to Saigon and meets Steve Butler (Tommy Le Jones). Will this American GI offer the peace she has sought her whole life?

Heaven & Earth is the final part in Oliver Stoneís so called Vietnam trilogy. Coming after ĎPlatooní and ĎBorn on the Fourth of Julyí, is quite and act to follow. But Heaven & Earth holds itís own and actually presents a very different movie watching experience to the other two films, but with some of the same overriding themes.

Based on the memoirs (over two books) of the real life Le Ly, Heaven & Earth shows us the Vietnam War from a different perspective than that we are used to, that of a Vietnamese peasant. It does teach us the same lessons though. War is hell, no-one ever truly wins and itís the innocents that get hurt the most. Itís the films novel perspective though, that makes it so effective in teaching these age old lessons about war.

All the more effective thanks to the startling central performance by unknown Vietnamese actress Heip Thi Le. Barely off the screen for the films entire runtime, Thi Le basically carries the weight of the entire film on her shoulders. A feat which she handles effortlessly. The pain and suffering of the Vietnamese people is written all over her face and she perfectly conveys a woman being torn apart by events completely out with her control. Itís a bravado performance and I can only assume that itís the language barrier which has stopped her building on this performance and carving out a successful acting career.

Although the promotional material for the film would have you think otherwise, Heip Thi Le really is the star of the film, but the box does have Tommy Lee Jones plastered all over it. In truth he doesnít show up until a good hour of the film has passed. But, his impact on the film is still huge. We know Jones is a quality actor, although he could be accused of hamming it up from time to time. He is outstanding here though.

To start with his character seems perfect, although some things he says reveal a darkness buried down deep. Itís not until they move to America that we see the real Steve Butler. Equally as affected by the war as Le Ly, Butler is a broken man, he only knows one thing, to kill. When this is taken away from him he has nothing. Not even the love of Le Ly is enough. Some of the later stuff from Jones is truly amazing.

Joan Chen plays Le Lyís mother and is almost unrecognisable behind an ugly set of black teeth. She has some really emotional scenes with Thi Lee both at the start of the film and near the end and all hit the right notes.

As you would expect from Oliver Stone the film is startling to look at with contrasting imagery littered throughout the film. From the lush, beautiful landscapes and paddy fields of the pre-war Vietnam to the harsh, brutal scenes of rape and torture. Stoneís trademark style is a little subdued for this film, but this is still unmistakably a Stone film. The first appearance of the US helicopter for example, or the rapid editing on the black and white flashbacks, his hallmarks are plain to see.

I enjoyed the film most when it was in Vietnam, especially the first 15 to 20 minutes before the US military show up. I really liked seeing how a common Vietnamese family lives and works. Itís something that you just donít normally see in films about Vietnam. The rest of the time in Vietnam is also very good. Where the film does falter slightly is when it moves to the US. It all happens so fast that I got the feeling that Stone wanted to make a 3 hour movie, but perhaps was under pressure to make cuts. I would have welcomed that extra runtime if it expanded on the Steve/Le Ly relationship a bit more. Giving us a better insight into its development.

The films epilogue tells us that Le Ly went on to become a successful businesswoman in the US. This is hinted at in the second half of the movie, but again isnít expanded upon; I felt it would have been nice to see the later stages of her life as she grasped it by the horns and made her life and those of her people back home better. I did like the scenes back in Vietnam near the end of the film though. Some very touching moments between Le Ly and her mother and a very powerful speech by Le Lyís brother about the impact that the Americans had on the people of Vietnam.

In all Heaven & Earth is quite a dark and depressing film, but then again the subject matter doesnít lend itself to cheery moments. It is however, a very powerful film that is at times beautiful, shocking, moving and poignant. Boasting some wonderful performances, Heaven & Earth paints a side of the Vietnam War that you have probably never seen before.

 

/10.

See Heaven & Earth if you enjoyed Ė Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket.

Poster Quote Ė The yin to Platoonís yang.