I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest takes a lifetime.
As you watch this 2002 film, which is set in Vietnam, circa 1952, a series of thoughts and ideas will percolate in your mind. The film stars Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, and Vietnamese beauty, Do Thi Hai Yen. There’s not much of a mystery about what will happen with these three people. Their roles look self-evident.
A love triangle might be the simplest description. But that is not how the film begins. It begins with a body just killed floating in the river. Sort of like William Holden’s corpse floating in the swimming pool as Sunset Boulevard began. From there we see what happened in a long flashback.
Caine, in a magnificent performance, plays a weary British news reporter based in Saigon. He was a correspondent for the London Times, but he had filed only three stories in the past year. The home office had noticed, and had sent Fowler a notice to recall him. But Fowler, had no intention of leaving Saigon. He loved the idyllic life he had there.
He worked infrequently and spent his afternoons sipping tea at the outdoor cafe of Saigon’s Hotel Intercontinental. His evenings were spent making love to Phuong, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who was 30 or 40 years his junior, or he smoked an opium pipe that she had prepared for him. Fowler had plucked Phuong from the lines of taxi-dancers in a Saigon night club. He was a married man, but not to her. But it was evident that she was the only love of his life.
Enter Brendan Fraser as the young and idealistic (seemingly) American, Alden Pyle. He’s in country as an aide to the Vietnamese. His specialty, or rather his cover, is medical and pharmaceutical eye care products. He meets Fowler, and soon after Fowler introduces him to his paramour, Phuong. For Pyle, it is love at first sight.
Spoken by Fowler:
You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.
Remember this is 1952. The Vietnamese are struggling for their freedom from the French who had made Vietnam a French colony long before. The French would taste their bitter defeat at Dien Bien Phu, two years later, and would exit the country. But that was in the future. For now there was a war between the French overlords, and the Vietnamese.
The other fight was the encroachment coming from the North Vietnamese communists. While the South of Vietnam struggled for independence from France, they also feared the slowly approaching communists.
There’s your set up. It is like a multi-tiered game of tic-tac-toe. Only this was real life, not a game. While Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong slowly and politely danced their way through their courtly love triangle, a larger struggle went on as background some of the time, but more often as the foreground action. That would be the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese themselves between the Vietnamese, the French, and the Communists. With the Americans slowly and covertly entering the fray.
Directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt, The Bone Collector, Clear and Present Danger, and Patriot Games) with a script by Christopher Hampton from the 1955 Graham Greene novel, the film was fairly well received with Caine garnering a Best Performance by an Actor Oscar Nomination.
But what Noyce and company have delivered is more than just a taste of a bygone era in an exotic location that would ultimately be the setting of a real life long and deadly war. The film offers you a chance to see what occurred behind the curtains and out of the sight of the rest of the world, in a period preceding the war.
It is not only the story of a personal conflict of an elderly British man, an American, and the exotic beauty called Phuong, but it is also about the struggle over a bigger beauty – and that would be Vietnam itself.
The film closes with another Fowler voice over:
They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest takes a lifetime. They say whatever it was you were looking for, you will find here. They say there is a ghost in every house, and if you can make peace with him, he will stay quiet.