BR: Heaven & Earth (1993)

November 24, 2015 | By

 

HeavenAndEarth1993_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: A

Released:  December 9, 2014

Genre:  Drama / War

Synopsis: Based on the memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, Oliver Stone’s drama traces her epic journey from Vietnam to the United States as the war ignites, rages, and pushes her to escape with an American soldier and start a life that proves especially challenging.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with writer-director Oliver Stone / Intro by Oliver Stone / 5 Deleted Scenes with  optional director commentary (25:31) / Alternate Opening with score by Kitaro (22:33) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 


 

Review:

According to Oliver Stone, Heaven & Earth isn’t part of his ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ – there isn’t one, just a series of films dealing with aspects of the war instead of recurring characters – but it’s certainly an interesting choice in subject, coming after the autobiographical Platoon (1986) and the bio-drama Born on the Fourth of July (1989), with maybe the following Nixon (1995) folded in as the political extension of the years leading up to, including, and following the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Stone wanted a change of pace after JFK (1991), his international hit which drained his energies, and yet he chose another bio-drama set in the seventies, mandating heavy location filming in Thailand, doubling for the Vietnamese countryside and the city of Saigon, with a section taking place in the U.S.

Based on a pair of memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip – When Heaven and Earth Changes Places, and Child of War, Woman of Peace – Stone’s compacted script moves at a brisk speed in covering Hayslip’s childhood to teen years, and life in a picturesque valley that was first razed by the invading French, rebuilt, and then caught in a brutal tug of war between the Communist North and American-backed South soldiers, each trying to sway villagers to their sides, and punishing those who strayed elsewhere with special brutality.

Stone’s mission was to show both sides, and Hayslip’s life is especially brutal, becoming a soldier, tortured, raped, fleeing to the big city with her mother to avoid local shame, becoming a single mother, and drifting into prostitution before an older American soldier woos her, and whisks her to the States where she’s caught in an abusive marriage.

The writer-director admits to trimming scenes for running time and tempering material that he felt may have offend Vietnamese and U.S. audiences (and maybe French as well), but the trade-off is a film that has uneven spurts of striking drama and abrupt transitional material, with Hayslip’s U.S. scenes coming off as slightly surreal (which, admittedly, may have been intended to stress the cultural divides).

The real problem lies in the dialogue which has Vietnamese characters talking in a quasi-Asian, poetic style, as conjured by an American; it’s not that Stone gets characters or emotions wrong, but there’s a preciousness that sometimes oozes from exchanges between family members. Moreover, whenever Hayslip speaks English to Americans, actress Hiep Thi Le switches to an accented speech, which comes off as schizophrenic. The wiser choice would’ve been to have Vietnamese and English dialogue within the film, but that would’ve killed the film’s box office chances in the U.S.

Hayslip may be a rounded character, there’s something suspiciously wooden about future husband Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones): his fixation on her after a chance meeting is forced, their relationship never gels into something genuine. As Stone reveals in his commentary, Butler’s actually a composite of roughly five men Hayslip was involved with; creatively, it’s a case where such an amalgam of various characters lacks depth because Butler has to function as five men – lovers, husbands, liberators, saviours, abusers, and the father of two future sons – making him in the film’s final edit, quite dull.

Jones has one great scene in which Butler confesses to Hayslip his mercenary role in the war, often hired to kill combatants, but as soon as that dynamic monologue is over, we’re back to melodrama, which isn’t helped by Le’s sometimes earnest performance. Like a classic Hollywood starlet tale, Le accompanied her sister to an audition, and on a lark, tried out for the part and won in spite of having no prior acting experience. Her natural performance style works for the character, but in the domestic scenes set in the States, the dialogue and sudden accent are overwrought.

 

Deleted Scenes and Stone’s Original Vision

Heaven & Earth is a peculiar film, because within its awkward stitching lie some potent moments:  the war horrors are harrowing, and Stone does a fine job in portraying the lunacy of families torn apart by rival armies and having differing sons fighting for opposing sides; and the idyllic nature of Hayslip’s village is intensified by both an astonishingly beautiful location and a vivid recreation of the village with rice fields, a temple, and assorted homes.

The deleted scenes (ported over from the prior Warner DVD), collectively running almost 50 mins., reveal a movie that would’ve not only been much longer, but had a vastly different structure than the final edit.

The opening montage that supports the Main Titles ran not 7 mins. but 22 mins., and featured a more fractured weaving of haunting B&W scenes where Hayslip ‘visits’ her village in a dream, encounters stiff, ghostly characters, and launches the sequence into full colour montages of the village in pre-French invasion years. When the French soldiers arrive, they leer over pretty Hayslip (then a child), and a woman is assaulted in the not far off distance before the village is set aflame. The longer narration by Le also covers longer edits of family and community moments, exchanges with daughter & mother on having children, and the village’s rebirth from the ashes – material that features less grandiose music (albeit material that’s probably demo cues fitted into a temp track).

The reduced opening that launches the final edit is more compact, but it lacks some touching moments and a shot where the wandering Hayslip ‘sees herself’ as a teen, blurring the film’s line between flashbacks, dreams, and reality. The final edit also loops Kitaro’s epic main theme in a fashion that slams the audience too hard, and there’s a sense a slightly expanded opening would’ve added some buffer material so Kitaro’s main theme recurred in a more measured fashion.

Most striking, however, is a horrific story Hayslip’s mother tells the kids at dinner, in which the French assaulted a woman who failed to flee before the Army’s arrival, and her slow death by hatchet – a fuzzy story that may not be true, but certainly balanced Stone’s film into a three-pronged criticism of the Viet Cong, American, and French soldiers.

The lengthy montage also details the importance of the rice harvest to the community, and shows how the crops bonded villagers with poor and middle class families working side-by-side (like Hayslip’s). Le’s original narration of the harvest also refers back to Stone’s commentary, in which the director explains the South Army’s relocation of insular communities to hamlets that adversely affected ancient traditions and practices which had made tightly-knitted communities more independent from government control.

Whereas the longer opening sequence lacks a director’s commentary (which really would’ve been fascinating to hear), Stone does provide contextual details on the five deleted scenes that expand on some characters, including Butler (who suffers the most in the final cut),  his mother (played by Debbie Reynolds), his priest (unbilled Jeffrey Jones), and a short scene with Kathleen Quinlan (playing a ball-busting lawyer) that originally preceded Butler’s expulsion from the house during the couple’s vicious separation.

Reynolds’ casting is interesting, but her role in the extra scenes adds no more than a possessive mother whose behaviour is supported by Butler’s bullying sister (Conchata Ferrell). The pair ‘s extra scenes also tie to a moment where Hayslip agrees to visit the family’s priest and asks him pointed and reasonable questions about Catholicism from her stance as a Buddhist. It’s a scene Stone still regrets cutting, but he explains the film’s original structure was more fractured, with present day scenes weaving through recent and far distant events – an approach he realized wasn’t working, mandating ripping the film apart and restructuring scenes in a more chronological order.

The amusing irony is that while a release date circa 1993 may have ensured Stone had to make hard decisions to tighten his film, in the current climate where directors are promised free reign to expand their works on home video (and keep catalogue titles fresh), the allowance to endlessly tinker enabled the director to create four versions of Alexander (2004), arguably his worst film, and one whose structure was similarly reworked for more fluidity (or an attempt thereof).

From a film editing vantage, given this marked Stone’s first real effort to create an ambitious non-linear epic, it would’ve been fascinating to see his original cut, even if, like the extracted deleted scenes on this disc, it exists as a roughly scored non-anamorphic SD version.

 

The Wrap-Up

Robert Richardson’s cinematography is stunning and poetic – it’s one of the most beautifully shot and composed films in Stone’s filmography – as are the striking edits and montages by David Brenner and Sally Menke. Much like JFK, Stone’s explored a modernistic approach in advancing story, heightening horror, and giving visual poetry to scenes of tranquility and self-empowerment. Sound effects cues are equally impactful, including a Tibetan vocal call that presages moments of assault by armaments, rapists, and nightmares.

The Asian cast is filled with an impressive mix of newcomers and veterans, with Joan Chen playing Hayslip’s mother, Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields) as her father, and Long Nguyen as her lover with whom she had her first child.

Kitaro’s music score (sadly, not isolated on this Twilight Time release) is more varied in its dramatic success, partially because Stone wanted a heavy repetition of a sweeping theme. Its overuse tends to have the effect of flashing THIS IS AN EPIC MOMENT! to audiences instead of letting performance and visuals state the obvious. The percussion tracks are marvelous, but there’s a sense Stone wanted to make a reformulated epic with classical elements woven into a modern format that’s ultimately just marginally successful.

TT’s Blu-ray features a clean transfer, although several bright yellow opening credits have a slight jagged quality. The sound mix is very robust, and the generous extras make it clear Stone leaped at the chance to present a proper special edition to ensure the film and Hayslip’s story are preserved in HD, and with contextual extras.

Stone’s commentary track (also from the prior DVD) is fine until the forty minute range, where it gets spotty, and he begins to focus on themes, motifs, and characters, with big gaps appearing in the final half hour. Like his track for Twilight Time’s U-Turn (1997) Blu-ray, he drops some piquant material as the End Credits roll, and also clarifies that while he had to distill aspects of Hayslip’s life into something palatable to different cultural audiences, Hayslip was asked to trim material from her memoirs, as certain details were deemed too upsetting. She reportedly remains a controversial figure for her candor and critical eye, but Heaven & Earth is a tale of personal triumph over the brutality of war, and the lasting scars which affected so many civilians and soldiers.

Actress Hiep Thi Le subsequently appeared in a several films and TV shows, and had a significant supporting role in Green Dragon (2001), a film chronicling the first wave of Vietnamese war refugees arriving at Camp Pendleton. (Also part of the cast were Long Nguyen and Tuan Tran.) Le also narrated a short documentary on Hayslip, From War to Peace and Beyond (2007).

Cinematographer Richardson and co-editor Menke would become regular collaborators with Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2), whereas Stone’s next film would be the Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers (1994), heavily tweaked with Stone’s own stylistic motifs and fetishes.

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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