Some people seem to be tired of Vietnam War movies already, but, in actuality, that war contains a rich vein of artistic material that remains untapped. Just because we've seen several movies on what it was like to be a foot soldier in the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the late 1960's doesn't mean that all that should be said has been said.
On the other hand, just because a film happens to view the Vietnam War from a new, or even a worthy, angle doesn't mean that everyone should go out and see it. Saigon - Year of the Cat is a case in point. No other Vietnam War movie has really looked at what happened when South Vietnam began to collapse (unless you count Braddock: Missing in Action III, and let's not). And, as parts of Saigon - Year of the Cat demonstrate, it's a fascinating subject, full of rich thematic material, drama, and irony. But Saigon - Year of the Cat blows its opportunity by relying on a trite foreground story, while relegating all of the interesting stuff to the background. Not surprisingly, it doesn't work too well.
Saigon - Year of the Cat opens with credits and an introductory title card that seem straight out of the fifties - mysterious Asia, high adventure, all that rousing imperialist nonsense. Immediately it settles down to its real business, more respectable but less entertaining. What the film really wants us to do is follow a rather dull middle-aged British bank officer. The only interesting thing about her life is that she is about to have an affair with a CIA agent, and the only interesting parts of the film are those that abandon her and follow the agent. If writer David Hare and director Stephen Frears had been willing to jettison this boring narrator they might have had something. Or if they had made some attempt to make her an interesting person. They did neither, and she acts like a soporific on the film.
Fortunately, halfway through the film she's almost forgotten. The North Vietnamese are on the move, the South is cracking up, the American ambassador is living in a fantasy, all the Vietnamese who cooperated with the Americans are beginning to panic, and the CIA agent (surprisingly more hero than villain) fears that his country will put things off too long and leave all their friends to the mercy of the Communists. This section of the film has tension, energy, and intelligence. If the whole film had been built around this conflict, the film would have been very fine indeed.
But Saigon - Year of the Cat is a British film, not an American one. It's an obvious characteristic of almost all American films that they are about Americans - the main characters are Americans, and the focus of the film is almost always on their concerns. (Only certain historical films, and some non-Hollywood independent films, seem able to break through this myopia.) Similarly, this British film seems compelled to insert a British observer, though she is totally out of place and completely peripheral to the film's interests. Now I have some idea of how Indonesians must feel when they see The Year of Living Dangerously, or the French when they see Frantic, or Chileans when they see Missing.
A strong performance might have overcome poor writing in this central character, but Judi Dench plays the part as if she was tired of the role before she even started it. She shows no energy, and fails to make the audience see why it should care about her life. Contrasting that is the fine performance Frederick Forrest gives as the reluctant CIA agent. He seems to be attempting something of a Bogart tribute, and his is certainly the sort of part Bogart excelled in. Forrest makes the picture live whenever he's on the screen, provided Dench is not. She is able to throw a bucket of cold water even on his performance. Josef Somer adds another bad CIA man performance to his record, E.G. Marshall is convincingly deluded as the U.S. ambassador, and Wallace Shawn is, as so often, dispensible. Roger Rees has a brief part in which he tries his best to convince us that he's crazy over Dench. He had much better luck with Nicholas Nickleby.
Stephen Frears doesn't really have much of a feel for this kind of material. He's better off working with more fully developed characters, in a script about people, rather than events. My Beautiful Laundrette showed his talents to much better advantage than Saigon - Year of the Cat does. Still, he does get into the spirit of the thing once Saigon really begins to fall apart, and he stages some very memorable scenes in the U.S. Embassy, as the last Americans are pulling out in panic. His cinematographer, Jim Howlett, abets him in this well, and also gives Forrest's performance a lift by cleverly using shadows on his face to suggest the darkness and secrecy of Forrest's world.
David Hare's script is the big problem. Even at the film's best, the story never seems very well organized, and the central construction of the script works to weaken the film. As in the adaptation of his play, Plenty, Hare focusses on an unlikeable heroine. In this film, though, the heroine is not only unlikeable, but also tedious. Also, the script assures the film of a slow start, since nothing really happens until an hour into the film. Hare's dialog is nothing special, either, which is quite disappointing from an internationally known playwright.
Saigon - Year of the Cat actually predates the recent rash of American Vietnam movies, having been shot in the mid-80's. Having been before the wave isn't going to make any difference to American distributors or American audiences, though, and Saigon - Year of the Cat is not terribly likely to find favor with either. Half a good movie isn't enough for most people, and that's what Saigon - Year of the Cat has to offer.
Back to the review list.