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‘Heaven and Earth’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 24, 1993


Oliver Stone
Hiep Thi Le;
Tommy Lee Jones;
Joan Chen;
Haing S. Ngor;
Debbie Reynolds
Under 17 restricted

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In "Platoon," Oliver Stone watched the Vietnam war from its muddy trenches -- the grunt's-eye view. In "Born on the Fourth of July," he charted the unwelcome odyssey of a returning American veteran. Now, in "Heaven and Earth," he reviews the conflict through the eyes of a young Vietnamese girl. For Stone, the latest film is the closing of a circle, the final brushwork on an ambitious canvas.

But Stone's emotional investment reaps little artistic return. "Heaven," based on the recollections of real-life Vietnamese Le Ly Hayslip, jars the senses, with its brutal torture sessions, gun-to-the-head executions, rape and a grisly suicide -- to reel off a few examples. For all its emotional anguish, however, not to mention teeming movie extras, beautifully framed rice paddies and descending helicopters, it lacks a poetic center.

Le Ly (played with authentic presence by newcomer Hiep Thi Le) lives with her family (including parents Joan Chen and Haing S. Ngor) in Ky La, a Central Vietnamese village. Life is oppressive for her at every conceivable level. Her culture offers women little reason to be happy and there is no shortage of colonizing Frenchmen, Americans, American-allied Vietnamese and Viet Cong to complete the sabotage of her psyche.

Tortured by noncommunist Vietnamese for suspected political treachery, she is finally sprung from jail by her mother, who bribes officials with Le Ly's dowry. But as soon as she's free, the VC lead her to an open grave, suspecting her of compliance with her former captors. Preparing for death, she is raped instead. Shamed and exiled from family and village, she works for a Vietnamese aristocrat. When he makes her pregnant, the aristocrat's jealous wife kicks Le Ly into the street. With the American war in full swing, Le Ly, now with a little boy, joins the Saigon throngs for whom waitressing and prostitution are the only available means of employment. She refuses, however, to sell her body.

She meets Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), a genial Marine who pursues her with such gentle singlemindedness, she succumbs. When the war ends, she follows him to the United States, only to encounter the culture shock of 1970s America and a new round of horrors from her war-haunted husband.

At 138 minutes, "Heaven and Earth" feels even longer, thanks to Stone's structurally clunky script, which is narratively hamstrung by two autobiographies by Le Ly Hayslip -- "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and "Child of War, Woman of Peace." An epic is only as good as its smallest, simplest truth. But "Heaven" has so many themes, ranging from Buddhist spirituality to feminism, it ends up with none. As usual, Stone rushes in where the sane, the scared and the indifferent fear to tread, be it El Salvador or Dealey Plaza. But when he arrives at the Holy Grail of this project, he flails wildly at it, instead of reaching out and grabbing.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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