Heaven and Earth (1993)



Director:  Oliver Stone. 

Starring:  Haing S. Ngor (Papa), Bussaro Sanruck (Le Ly - Age 5), Supak Pititam (Buddhist Monk), Joan Chen (Mama), Thuan K. Nguyen (Uncle Luc), Hiep Thi Le (Le Ly), Lan Nguyen Calderon (Ba), Thuan Le (Kim), Dustin Nguyen (Sau), Mai Le Ho (Hai), Vinh Dang (Bon), Khiem Thai (Brother In Law), Liem Whatley (Viet Cong Captain), Michelle Vynh Le (Viet Cong Cadre Woman), Tuan Tran (Rapist).

story of a Vietnamese woman caught in the turmoil of the Vietnam War



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

 1953, Vietnam.  The French colonial troops arrive in Le Ly's village.  They destroy the village forcing her family to rebuilt their lives.

1963.  The peasant country side changed forever with the arrival of the Viet Cong.  Many of them were displaced persons from the north and all of them were angry.  Her two older brothers go with the Viet Cong forces. 

The Chinese once ruled Vietnam and the Vietnamese had to fight long and hard against them.  During World War II they fought the Japanese, who had used many of the Vietnamese as slaves. 

Then the Americans arrive, first as military advisers to South Vietnamese troops.  Diem, the leader of South Vietnam, was a Catholic, and was seen as somewhat foreign to the peasants, while Ho Chi Minh was respected as being a great war hero against the Japanese.  Le Ly's village was run by the government during the day, but by the Viet Cong at night.  One night the Viet Cong grabbed the government teacher in the village and executed him.  American advisers and the South Vietnamese throw Viet Cong prisoners out of helicopters to their deaths for not giving up the information their captors wanted. 

Le Ly's brothers have not written in two years and the family is very worried.  The local religious adviser tells them that their shrine is too small for their home, but if they leave it outside they will be better able to communicate with the spirits of their sons.  Le Ly starts to work with the Viet Cong.  The South Vietnamese troops would come in, they would be ambushed by the Viet Cong, but then twice as many South Vietnamese soldiers would come back to the village.  One day the South Vietnamese come for Le Ly.  She is interrogated, slapped, has her hair pulled, kicked, given electric shocks and jailed.  She with two other young Vietnamese girls are tied to a pole, their feet covered with a sweet liquid and left outside so the ants and other insects can bite them.  Then the tormentors put snakes down their blouses.  Le Ly is finally let go when her mother is able to bribe a government official.  But back in her village, the villagers are suspicious of her.  She is accused of being and traitor and threatened with death and then raped by a Viet Cong soldier.  This ended her relationship with her village. 

Her sister found a job for her and her mother in the house of a rich Vietnamese family.  Le Ly was the nanny, while the mother cleaned the house.  This better situation soon came to an end, however, as Le Ly and the master of the house were sexually attracted to each other.  Le Ly thought she was in love with her master.  They had sex together and Le Ly becomes pregnant.  The mistress of the house finds out and mother and daughter are thrown out. 

Mother and daughter are sent back to Da Nang (near their village).  They have to sell cigarettes and liquor to survive, while paying bribes to the police.  Le Ly comes to live with one of her sisters, who works and lives  in a house of prostitution.  The friction between the two women soon leads to Le Ly being thrown out.  She survives by picking through the American garbage dumps where she finds the bodies of prostitutes murdered by men.  Because she was not a prostitute, an American soldier propositions her for sex with two soldiers.  For the price of $350, which could feed her and her family for a year, she agrees.  After the deed she feels very bad. 

Her father was beaten by the Americans.  They had forced him to put a hand grenade in a Viet Cong tunnel but the hand grenade did not go off immediately, so two Americans went into the tunnel.  The grenade exploded killing them and the other Americans gave her father a very bad beating.  Later her father drank acid and died.  Le Ly bought her father the best funeral he could have.

Le Ly now survives by working in the Korean casino serving drinks for tips.  One day her prostitute sister wants her to pretend to be a fellow prostitute to help her steal the money of a customer, an American sergeant named Steve.  Her sister grabs the money and the two run in different directions.  But the soldier follows Le Ly.  With the help of a rickshaw driver he is able to find her.  She tries to get rid of him, telling him that she is a good girl and doesn't want a boyfriend, but he is interested in her and just won't go away.  He stays with her and her son and soon they are having sex.  Steve proposes marriage.

Three years later and Steve, Ly Ly, her son, their son and Ly Ly's mother all live in military housing on a base in the central highlands of Vietnam.  One day the area comes under shelling.  Steve arrives in a helicopter and has the family flown out, but they are dropped in an area near thousands of refugees fleeing south.  The family has to join the refugees, while Steve fights.  The entire country was collapsing and Ly Ly was trying to get her family out of Vietnam.  She is becoming desperate as the Americans do not have her name on the list of dependents.  Finally, Steve shows up and the family is reunited. 

San Diego, California.  Le Ly and her two sons have to adapt to America.  She is somewhat overwhelmed by all the food available to the Americans and by the enormous wastage of food.  Steve says he will leave the marines and get a high paying job and they will go to someplace like Indonesia, but he won't tell her exactly what the job is.  When Steve finally does tell her, she learns that her husband will be selling guns and acting as a military advisor.  She is very upset with Steve and he has to give up on the idea. 

Steve is opposed to his wife working, but she is determined to make money and she starts working at a circuit board factory. She wants to save enough money to start a business of her own.  She says she becomes like an American woman and fights like a banshee with Steve.  Steve is drinking more and more and now Le Ly sees another, more vicious side of the angry Steve.   The fights become so common that she decides to divorce Steve.  When he finds out, in a rage, he holds a shotgun to the back of Le Ly's head.  He tells her he cannot live without her.  He explains:  "They got me so bad. . . . going to kick me out of the marines."  He confesses about his military past: "I'm a killer, baby. . . . I got so good at it."  Sometimes he would kill three or four men each night.  One time he cut a man's nuts off and put them in his mouth.  He dealt in drugs, guns and slavery.  He adds: "I was in hell, baby."  Steve is obviously suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and yet is getting no professional help for the mental condition.  They reconcile for the moment at least.

But the fights continue and soon Le Ly starts divorce proceedings.  Steve has to leave their house.  But now Steve is an even more angry and bitter man. He kidnaps two of her three boys.  Steve tells her that she will not see her boys again if she does not drop the charges against him and the divorce.  Le Ly consults with a Buddhist priest and he convinces her to try again with Steve.  When she next talks with Steve she tells him that they will try again.  Steve starts crying.  Perhaps now Steve only has his anger and his bitterness to keep him going.  Without these emotions, he has to face what he did in Vietnam.  Steve ends up killing himself in his van.  Le Ly is very upset. 

Thirteen years after the end of the Vietnam War, Le Ly returns to her village with her three boys.  Le Ly has prospered in America.  She even has her own restaurant.  She has had affairs with men but none of them touched her heart.  Her mother accepts her back, but one of her surviving brothers is angry with her.  He tells Le Ly just how terrible the situation has been for their family and for Vietnam.  He resents that Le Ly went over to live with a people who killed so many Vietnamese (from 2-3 million).  And now with her visit to the family, the village will turn against the family again.  Le Ly says that she had come home, but home had changed.  And now she is torn between two different worlds and loyalties.  But perhaps, she philosophizes, it is her fate to always be between heaven and earth. 


Very good movie.  Great and moving story and great acting.  All the main actors were great.  Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly was especially outstanding, as was Tommy Lee Jones.  In the United States, there is not much recognition of or sorrow over the holocaust-like numbers of Vietnamese killed by the Americans.  This movie is a great contribution to the understanding of the Vietnamese perspective of what occurred in their country.  Vietnam paid a terrible price for the United States deciding to take over the role of the French colonialists and this movie helps in understanding some of the depths of their suffering.       

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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