Dat Kho (Land of Sorrows) (1973)
Director: Thúc Can H.
Starring: Hop Bich, Nguyen Dot Luu, Cong Son Trinh (Trinh Quan), Quynh Van, Ha Yuan.
the great travails of a Vietnamese family before and during the Tet Offensive in Hue
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
This film, shot on location in the early 1970's, including scenes of the actual shelling and evacuation of the city of Hue, contains the only extant cinemascope footage of Vietnam taken during this time.
At night there are armored vehicles moving through the village. A man named Nghia comes to speak with another man named Quan. Nghia says there are two dead, but the morale is high. Quan doesn’t think they can win given all the tanks around. Nghia says there are four battalions and 30 tanks, actually.
In a Buddhist temple a clergyman asks that they pray for the soul of the Reverend Dieu Dinh who has immolated herself for their cause. Quan and Nghia can hear the prayer and Quan comments that this is the fifth martyr. He will be going back to Hue tonight on foot. Nghia asks him to give his best regards to his mother and sister Hanh. Curfew is over,so Quan leaves with a couple of other men for Hue.
They see a convoy of Americans passing by them. They walk all day to get to their first destination in the dark of night where the two men leave Quan. Reaching his village he greets a pretty young woman named Diem. She says she is surprised that he still remembers her name. Quan says he always remembers her birthday. He will see her tomorrow, he says, and continues walking.
At home Quan rushes his mother and sister Thuy to scare them. Sister gets Quan some food and mother tells him that brother Ha has just graduated and has volunteered for Dat Kho. They’ve been surviving because of Thuy’s pig raising. Mother asks for news of Nghia. Quan tells her he has been struggling for the Buddhist side and is convinced there will be victory over the Americans. Mom says that his sister Hanh has joined the militant students. Brother Hai goes on missions.
Mother asks her son to sing one of the songs he has composed. Quan sings about the future peace. Brother Ha arrives and the two brothers go to another room to have a chat. Quan expresses his disappointment that Ha chose to go away to Dat Kho. Ha says he did it to make a sacrifice. He will take care of the wounded at the front lines. Sister Hanh arrives back from her meeting with the militants.
Elder brother Hai brings Hanh back home and complains that she was with the rioters again. He says his sister is just protesting because it’s the "in" thing and she is going to end up in jail. Hai also complains to mother that Quan is causing the family trouble by writing protest songs. He will end up in jail too! Elder brother also has a harsh word for Thuy who he says stays home all day thinking of Nghia, who will get arrested if he comes back to Hue. Mother tells her son twice that he is being too harsh with his brothers and sisters. We learn that Hai is a captain in the South Vietnamese army. He tells his mother all he could get this time was a huge sack of rice for the family.
Quan asks the reverend what has happened to Nghia? His unit has been disrupted. Hanh tells her brother that Diem has found another man. In fact, she’s getting engaged to Dr. Vinh today. In response Quan gets drunk. When he sobers up he goes to see Diem. She denies that anything has changed. They hold hands. He tells her he needs her. He kisses her and she runs off.
At night a man tells Quan that he will spend the night in jail.
The next day Hai drinks with his army buddies. One of them comments that he can’t stand these long-haired freaks. Hai says it’s revolting to see them having fun, especially when they have to fight. A messenger comes to tell Hai that Quan has been arrested. Captain Hai asks his comrades to help him get his brother out of jail. There’s a helicopter flight to Saigon from Tay Loc. Hai gives each man an assignment. Hai and his buddy go to Gia Hoi police station. Very quickly Hai goes in and retrieves his brother.
Hai takes his brother to the helicopter and tells him to get on and go to Saigon. He tells Quan that as an officer he cannot have his draft-dodging brother around him. A soldier gives Quan his guitar and backpack. Quan leaves for Saigon.
Over the radio Thuy hears that Nghia has to report to the police station. As she walks back home from a store, she runs into Nghia. He tells her that the police are looking for him and he must run away. He will meet her behind the tea orchard of the pagoda.
The couple meet and Thuy says she has been so scared for Nghia. He says they’ve failed, but he will go on fighting. Nghia tells her he was hiding in his home village where he learned that his mother was killed by a grenade thrown into her garden. His father died in a similar way. He tells her about his visit home.
Flashback. The village was so desolate with only house ruins left behind. While there he finds four children living underground. They come out with their hands raised in surrender. One of the four is just an infant. The eldest boy says that his parents were killed by grenades and his elder brother Nghia left many years ago. Nghia suddenly realizes that these children are his brothers and sisters.
The children take their eldest brother down into their shelter to eat something. There he tells them that they have to leave immediately. They take the cooked rice with them. He asks why his eldest sister cut her hair so short? She says mother recommended it and also to wear old clothes so the soldiers would pity them and not shoot at them.
Back to the present. Nghia tells Thuy that the children are with his uncle now. Then he came to look for her (Thuy). It gets dark and Nghia sends Thuy back home. He gives her a letter to give to the Buddhist leader.
Captain Hai writes a letter to his brother Quan about an important experience he had when he first joined the army.
Flashback. They are at Dat Kho. Hai is speaking with a man who talks about returning to being a teacher after the war. Suddenly the convoy they are in comes under fire from a sniper. The former teacher is wounded. The armored vehicles surround the sniper. They almost run over the sniper, but they grab him instead. He is placed inside the personnel carrier with his victim and other men. The prisoner lowers his head before the sight of his deed.
In Saigon five young people sing along with Quan strumming his guitar to entertain a group of citizens. Fighting breaks out between those for peace and those who think the fighting must go on for awhile. A man smashes Quan’s guitar.
At night Quan walks home and finds the women villagers wanting to tear up an American. They gave him some money to buy goods at the PX (postal exchange, a military store) and now he tells them that the military police confiscated their money. Quan asks to speak with the man, named Tim. He reports back that the man is telling them the truth. And he promises to pay them back. Quan asks them to give him a break, since he is a foreigner. The leader, Mrs. Tu, for Quan’s sake, she says, will let the foreigner go.
A journalist tells those around him that he thinks the war will end next year. They hope he is right.
In his room a young woman sings one of Quan’s songs while he strums the guitar. (Is it a new one?) Hai comes to visit. Brother Ha on the way back from delivering a baby was killed by soldiers. And now Quan is no longer a draft dodger because his brother’s death now excludes him from the draft. Brother asks Quan what are his plans for the Tet holiday? Quan will celebrate with mother. After Hai leaves, Quan cries. Tim comes for a visit and tries to console him.
Tim has been staying with a Vietnamese woman named Jacqueline. Now Quan and Tim hear a commotion outside. They look. Jacqueline is telling the women below in the street that the women should not ask her to get the PX money from Tim because it is over between her and Tim. This makes the women feel bad and they say they don’t want to force Tim to give the money to them. She says because of him she has become miserable. She has lived with him for years but still doesn’t understand him, she says. Jacqueline throws a frame out with Tim’s picture in it. One of the women picks it up and gives it to Tim, who is now on the street. He tells everyone that if it is Jacqueline’s will that they split up, he will respect that decision. He will leave all his belongings behind. As Tim walks away Quan tells him to come spend Tet with him and his family.
Mother asks why Quan brought this American GI to their home? People are very gossipy here. Quan says it’s because Tim is so lonely and he has such great respect for Vietnamese customs. Later Tim plays a dice game with the family. Firing is heard in the background. Mother worries about her son Hai. Then the gunfire sounds very close to them. Everyone hits the ground.
Quan has Tim hide in another room. He turns off the house lantern. Their neighbor comes over crying with her two children crying. Quan goes back with her to help her with another child who has been wounded. Mother and the two daughters start preparing to leave. Quan returns saying the child died. Tim comes out to say he will surrender himself, but mother tells him to go back to the room. Mother says Tim is their guest and they must hide him.
Mrs. Hoa comes back to say that the Americans are coming so the attackers have moved from the area. She says they should all leave before the real fighting breaks out. Everyone agrees. Tim comes out again and insists he will turn himself in. (Tim is a deserter.) He thanks the entire family and leaves. An American soldier is outside and takes Tim away.
Now the fighting picks up again. Lots of people are on the road trying to escape the fighting. There are dead civilians, as well as some dead military men, on the road. An explosion goes off near the family. They are dirtied but not hurt. Quan sees a small child by his dead mother’s side. He picks him up and takes him to shelter in a Catholic church.. The family is also given shelter. A woman carries around her dead baby covered in a blanket.
A woman comes over to give Thuy a letter.
Flashback. Nghia gives Thuy an address to write to so they can keep in touch, just in case they get separated. He will wait for her to return. But now she must return home. Thuy leaves.
Back to the present. At night Thuy comes into the church. Her family says they were worried about her. She tells them she saw Nghia. Mother says she thought that’s what happened. Explosions occur near the church rocking the building. The woman with the dead baby drops her child and everyone sees it has been dead for awhile. Quan and another man hold the inconsolable woman. She breaks away and runs.
The people in the shelter sing a religious song. More explosions occur and the people start panicking. They decide to rush outside. The people jam the doorway and families start getting separated. The refugees run and keep running amidst explosions and gun fire.
Along the road Thuy has to take a rest break. She tells mother that she is exhausted. She asks her: "Is this life worth living?" Mother encourages her to hurry. An explosion goes off nearby. Thuy is hit by gun fire and bleeds profusely from her head. Her mother and sister cry. Thuy dies. Now tears stream down their cheeks.
They bury her body in what looks like a shallow bomb crater. Mother says they will go home now. If they are going to die, it might as well be at home.
Good movie. But I had a hard time getting it on-line. The first DVD had sound but no picture. And the second one had lots of stoppages in one chapter. But here it is anyway. There really wasn't that much real time filming of the Tet Offensive in Hue and that was of refugees. The war was still going on when this picture was made. The war ended in 1975. So that makes the movie even more interesting. The movie stresses the sufferings of one south Vietnamese family and the sufferings were great indeed. And yet through it all the family stayed together despite taking casualties. Good acting. Good story. Interesting.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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