Tony Bui has made a film that shows us contemporary Vietnam, as a sadly beautiful, exquisitely painful orphan of the war. Bui's American instincts - he grew up in California - pick up on the flotsam and jetsam of post-war delapidation: Saigon is like an elegant but aging whore, where children play at life.
Harvey Keitel arrives - a Vietnam vet - back in country, searching for the child he abandoned, and, incidentally, his own soul. There is an astonishing simplicity in his actions, as if this tyro Vietnamese filmmaker was able to get Keitel to stop acting and react to something more important than himself. Keitel's quiet failure serves the picture and reminds us of how often this must happen, when soldiers put down their arms and ask to be forgiven by the enemy because they hold no personal grudge. And yet the Vietnamese characters are so indelibly, so intimately and personally drawn that their pain cannot be relieved by a neurotic veteran trying to make it up to them. This is basically what the film is about.
Along the way we see a beautiful girl picking flowers for the master, and her devotion shows us a devotion or a tradition that is mystical and not subject to American pragmatism - which is the only reason it managed to survive. Tony Bui - credit must also be given to his brother Timothy for the story - shows us a vision of social outcasts from a low perspective reminiscent of Ozu. From the moment we realize that we must keep track of several stories, we're on a quest.
The central story is that of a boy who recalls the Italian Neo-realist "Shoeshine." The symbolic key to the story is the box of odds and ends that the young boy has collected in order to sell a ribbon or trinket to a grown-up who takes pity on him. The American buys him a beer, and when the child falls asleep, his box has been stolen. He wants to blame the American, and pursues him. But the American has no need for such junk, it's beneath him to steal the beggar boy's stuff; yet it is also only natural for the American to create a situation that allows that to happen - and leave the boy worse off than before he met the vet. That - in a nutshell - is Saigon today.
Add to the skein of lives a beautiful prostitute who lives between the two worlds of the exploiters and the exploited. The tales are gently brought together, until each character has a soul mate and has discovered the value of life. One man is a great teacher, and he won't let his face be seen, because leprosy has eradicated his former elegance; and yet he has created an identity that inspires others to a metaphysical devotion.
This film has the innocence of a first film in dealing with symbols and abstractions that are usually verboten except to the French. Still, the Bui brothers ground their images in something very real - or, at least, a reality we trust them to be honest about - because none of us have seen much of Vietnam, on the news or otherwise, since getting hauled out of Saigon.
There are no airlifts here, no deus ex machina. Each and every image could be taken out and framed to examine and analyze at length, yet each one also contributes to the story. The music, too, buoys the spirit of the film and resonates with a zen-like atmosphere. Our final impression is that of counting prayer-beads, as we recite the poetry of confession and forgiveness. It is a consumately intelligent - and wise - work of art., and can be seen as a great gift to both cultures. It is a bridge that begs to be crossed.
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