Late discovery: Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth

Heaven_&_EarthA little while ago, I was scrolling through the on-screen TV guide and saw the movie Heaven & Earth was airing on on APTN, of all channels. The movie’s title meant nothing to me as I hadn’t heard of it before but being the prowl for a movie, I read the description. A Buddhist Vietnamese woman married to Tommy Lee Jones’ character who comes to America after Vietnam War? That’s enough for me to give it a try and I tuned in about a third of the way through.

Heaven & Earth (1993) rounds out Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy which consists of Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). While the preceding two movies focus on  the war from the soldier’s point of view, the final installment completed his statement with the Vietnamese perspective. Roger Ebert wrote a comprehensive analysis in 1993.

What I did see (because I tuned in a third of the way in and haven’t watched the full movie yet) rang true to me from the social isolation Le Ly felt among her American in-laws to finding her niche in Chinatown and building her fortune. I was really captivated by the climactic scene showing how war can leave just shells of people and despite the couple finally being completely honest with each other, the marriage could not survive. And, of course, Tommy Lee Jones’ character’s tragic outcome.

In the midst of creating his Vietnam War series of movies, Oliver Stone read Le Ly Hayslip’s 1989 memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and he was inspired to make his third movie from a Vietnamese perspective no matter the risk of public opinion. The plot of the movie covers the story in Hayslip’s first memoir and her 1993 publication Child of War, Woman of Peace. The on-screen worded epilogue at the end of the movie informed me how the movie is based on the memoirs and how Le Ly dedicated her energy to East Meets West, a charitable foundation she founded to help improve the health and welfare of the Vietnamese and heal some of the pain the Vietnam War caused in the US and Vietnam.

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Of course, I considered reading the memoirs but my reading list for the year is already stacked so I can’t be sure.

In an interesting twist that further motivated me to blog sooner rather than later, BBC World Service released an interview with Le Ly Hayslip on February 5, 2015, “Heaven and Earth: Le Ly Hayslip” [mp3 link]

Now what’s with the title? It is of importance and is first addressed with scrolling text in the beginning, describing the colonization of Vietnam over the centuries. “The French rulers are far away in Saigon, Hanoi or Paris, but in Ky La, life goes on as it has for a thousand years, protected by Father Heaven, Ong Troi, and Mother Earth, Me Dat. Between Heaven and Earth – Troi va Dat – are the people, striving to bring forth the harvest and follow Lord Buddha’s teachings.”

The film shows or describes the most horrific treatment of the Vietnamese in the hands of the French, Viet Cong and Americans. The power of faith ti impressive if it was gets them, at least Le Ly and her family, through the decades of upheaval and suffering. In a voiceover at the end, Le Ly figures out her place and accepts her fate. “I had come home, yes. But home had changed. And I would always be in between. South, north, east, west, peace, war, Vietnam, America. It is my fate to be in between heaven and earth. When we resist our fate, we suffer. When we accept it, we are happy. We have time in abundance, an eternity to repeat our mistakes but we need only once correct our mistake and at last hear the song of enlightenment with which we can break the chain of vengeance forever. In your heart you can hear it now. It is the song your spirit has been singing since the moment of your birth. If the monks were right and nothing happens without cause, that the gift of suffering is to bring us closer to God, to teach us to be strong when we are weak, to be brave when we are afraid, to be wise in the midst of confusion, and to let go of that which we cannot hold. The last victories are won in the heart, not on this land or that.”

last-flight-outThis all reminds me of the TV movie I would have watched around 1990 when it was released, Last Flight Out, starring an ensemble cast including Rosalind Chao (I think she was a flight attendant), James Hong and James Earl Jones (I think the latter played a military man character). The film depicted the chaos and events the days and hours leading to the withdrawl of US military forces, closing of Vietnam’s borders and South Vietnam fell under North Vietnam forces. Everyone was clamoring for a chance to get onto the last flight out and for a new life in America. I remember the movie as being one with heartwrenchingly dramatic scenarios and a heartwarming ending and would love to get to watch it again.

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