The third in Mr. Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy. I still think Platoon is his best Nam film. Next, it would be a toss up between this and Born on the Fourth of July. July is too depressing and just plain old pessimistic to be that enjoyable even though it's an amazing movie and this film is somewhat similar in tone. Heaven and Earth has its share of unhappy scenes that are unpleasant to watch (family disputes, rape), but in its own way, it's a celebration of an astounding life.
I don't think I've seen a movie that has come off feeling like a book more so than Heaven and Earth and I mean that as a compliment. The film is based off of two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip. The film reminded me of two other memoirs set in foreign lands: So Far From the Bamboo Grove and When I Was Puerto Rican, two great books. Those books and this film follow young heroines that battle hardship and adversity.
One thing I didn't like about this movie, and it was the fault of the marketing and not the actual film is the fact that Tommy Lee Jones was top billed. Jones didn't appear in the movie until about an hour and a half into the film and he had a grand total of like 30 minutes on screen. Granted his character was important, but Joan "not Julie" Chen was the real star in this film.
She played the aforementioned Le Ly Hayslip, a girl that grew up in war-torn Vietnam. She was tortured and interrogated by both the Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong as both groups wrongly suspected her of being a spy. She was separated from her family, electrocuted, had bugs and snakes going after when she was defenseless (squeamish scene), and was raped. Life in the country/war heavy side of Vietnam was too brutal for her, so she escaped to the city side of Vietnam where she depended on selling goods to make money and survive. She was not too successful and ended up unwillingly getting pulled into the seedy prostitution world that outbursted when American soldiers needed sex. She did meet the Tommy Lee Jones and that moved her life in a new direction.
This definitely feels and looks like an Oliver stone movie with Vietnam as the setting and Stone's patented quick cuts and black and white effects in dream sequences. The movie is effective in it portrayal of how brutal Vietnam was before the war broke out and what the war meant to bystanders. It was an informative movie with lots of knowledge. It's also more of an emotional film than Stone's other works of cinematic brilliance. It's also a first for Oliver Stone in that the main character was female, almost like what Tarantino did with Jackie Brown.
The movie is a lot more gentler and personal than Stone's other work. The weakest part of the film was the narrative, which was difficult since the film was based on two sets of memoirs so it's difficult to choose what goes in the film and what gets left on the cutting room floor. Some events just went too fast or went unnoticed and the last 40 minutes felt out of place, but hey, the film makers had to put most of a woman's life on the screen in 2 hours and change, not an easy task.
The film lost my interest at times, but largely, it's an impressive film that works as a powerful form of edutainment. Oliver Stone made a noble film about the side of the Vietnam saga that not many people know about.