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Scenes From Another Lifetime : A role in Oliver Stone’s movie ‘Heaven and Earth’ allows a journalist, whose family fled Vietnam in 1975, to relive the terror of war while discovering its contradictory legacy

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<i> Thuan Le is a staff writer for The Times' Orange County edition</i>

I was only 8 when my family left Saigon in 1975, and I was too young to comprehend the war around me. But in the last two years, I have begun to comprehend the Vietnam War and its aftermath in ways I had never expected.

It happened by accident when I heard about Oliver Stone’s new film on Vietnam and ended up with a major role in it. “Heaven and Earth,” which opened on Christmas Day, is based on the life of Le Ly Hayslip, born into a war-torn Vietnamese village, and the tortuous path that led her to America. Once here as a bewildered war bride, she adapts to new in-laws and a life in San Diego. It’s a love story, an immigrant story and a survivor story.

But, most important, it is the first Hollywood movie about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Finally, moviegoers will see something other than a grunt’s-eye view of that conflict.

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For me, it was an unlikely triumph. Trained as a journalist and not as an actor, I was one of 8,000 Vietnamese Americans who auditioned for roles in the film as Stone’s operation scoured the country. I was cast as Kim, a bar girl in Da Nang and one of Le Ly’s older sisters.

On leave from The Times, I spent 2 1/2 months in Thailand, where not only did I and the other non-actors in the movie learn acting on the job, but I also saw close up the realities of a conflict I never knew personally. In character, we stood knee deep in the mud of rice paddies and cowered while American helicopters barking bullets interrupted our work; ran to a neighbor’s house to witness his killing by the Viet Cong; and argued with each other about how to deal with the violence.

Yet every evening, we left the rice fields and returned to the Phang Nga Bay Resort Hotel, where we enjoyed hot showers, ate sumptuous meals in air-conditioned dining rooms and slept on king-size beds.

All of this played havoc on my psyche. Day and night, I moved between the past and the present, war and peace, old enemies and new friends. No longer could I separate myself from the people and events I had known only intellectually.

*

More than seeing how a movie was made, I learned the history of my birthplace from the Vietnamese extras who live in Thailand and who, to my surprise, have remained loyal to Ho Chi Minh.

And if ever in the past I have wavered in my opinions that communism is evil or that Washington should normalize relations with Hanoi as soon as possible, I found confirmation on this trip to Southeast Asia. Acting out scenes of destruction and pain helped me to fully grasp how people suffered once the Boy Scout-like Viet Minh troops turned into bullying Viet Cong cadres.

I first learned of the project two years ago in a Vietnamese-language daily newspaper published in Orange County, Nguoi Viet. The story announced open casting calls nationwide to look for a Vietnamese woman in her late teens or early 20s for the lead role and others to play her family. The article also said the script was not yet completed.

I was eager for a chance to help write the screenplay and ensure its authenticity, so I showed up for the audition in Westminster that Dec. 14.

There, the casting people told me the movie was based on Hayslip’s two autobiographies, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” and “Child of War, Woman of Peace.” The author was working closely with the director and there already were plenty of consultants, they said, but they asked me to stick around anyway to help audition the thousands of people who had been lining up outside since 7 a.m.

It was the final casting call and I felt the magnitude and the importance of this potential movie as I watched people cry, laugh or scream their way through improvised scenes for screen tests. My people and I needed this movie for our spiritual therapy, I realized, just as some Americans worked to understand and heal their war wounds through films such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”

We emigres have been suppressing our sorrow and anger in the overwhelming effort to adapt in new homelands. A major motion picture telling the story of one of us would help the rest of us vent our emotions. I decided then that I had to be involved with this film, no matter how small my job.

After doing a screen test myself at the end of that day, I bought “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” and read it for the first time.

*

Before starting the novel, I was concerned that the story would stress again only the negatives of Vietnam in the American psyche. Hollywood movies about the war usually show peasants, prostitutes and bombed-out villages. Where are the courageous South Vietnamese soldiers, the handsome school buildings and the glorious flower markets of my youth in Saigon?

But the book went behind the scenes of those stereotypes. It told of a village in the middle ground of a battle having to buckle under two masters, a once tight-knit family being scattered by violence and a young, helpless woman with no skills resorting to the underworld to support an infant son and ailing parents.

Hayslip’s story was the age-old tale of what one has to sacrifice not to drown under the waves of upheaval. And I wanted to help tell the story to anyone who wished to judge her decisions--just as I had judged her before reading her words.

So I was excited when the casting people called me back in spring, 1992, for more tests.

They wanted me to read for Kim, who becomes a bar girl after leaving her village. I didn’t like that character, because she was cruel in the book. I changed my mind, however, after reading how Stone explained Kim in his script. He stressed that she was born with a harelip, was spurned by other villagers and other family members and was jealous of Hayslip when they were growing up. This buried resentment culminated in Kim’s big scene, in which she behaves badly to her father and has to confront him and Hayslip.

Kim’s lines of anguish in these arguments really inspired my meager acting abilities during the later auditions.

In one of the first days on the set in Thailand, I was walking around the village built especially for the movie and wearing a prosthetic harelip glued on my mouth, when I saw two girls pointing at me and giggling. I looked closer at their faces, one 7 and the other 11, and had to laugh because their mouths also had fake scars.

They did not speak English, but a translator confirmed that they were to play Kim at different stages of her childhood. I was surprised to learn that their parents are Vietnamese and that the girls were born in a northeastern town of Thailand, near Vietnam’s border.

I assumed that their families had emigrated there since 1975, after communists took over Saigon. But I was wrong.

Several days later, the cast was in the Phung family home to practice such chores as shifting rice grains in baskets. As the Vietnamese Thais taught us, the older ones recounted their lives.

Their families had slaved for the Japanese when they controlled Vietnam during World War II, one man said.

When the Japanese lost World War II in 1945, French colonists tried to regain the power they once had in Vietnam. In doing so, the French persecuted followers of Ho Chi Minh, who was trying to force out all foreign rulers and had the loyalty of many villages in the central region.

“Uncle Ho,” a woman said, persuaded the Thai government to let his people relocate to Thailand.

Thousands of families then walked through forests and over mountains from central Vietnam in the early 1950s. On the way, many died of starvation or from eating sand out of desperation, another woman told us.

Others said the Thai government had never allowed them citizenship or land ownership. And their children did not have the luxury of education beyond elementary school. But they still pray to Ho Chi Minh at their altars for having saved them.

*

Someone asked the women to sing for us, so several stood up and sang of homesickness while they swung their arms rhythmically as if rowing a boat. Their songs added to my distress.

We see things so differently, I thought to myself.

My parents emigrated from North Vietnam to South Vietnam to escape communism in 1955, only to flee from that regime again 20 years later to the United States. I remembered my father saying that he had hoped that Ho Chi Minh would save Vietnam for Vietnamese rule but that the man’s communist ways also had oppressed our people and had shattered my father’s illusions.

Then there are my relatives and other Vietnamese immigrants I have interviewed as a reporter. I’ve heard their testimonies of living under the communist government. Many had been imprisoned, starved into submission, deprived of religious freedom.

To me, Ho Chi Minh remains a bogyman. To these people in front of me, he was a savior.

On the set, I was reminded of what nightmares Ho Chi Minh’s forces could be.

One night was particularly unforgettable. The cast had walked onto the central courtyard to film a scene in which the Viet Minh soldiers changed from their idealist one-with-the-village behavior to the menacing attitudes of the Viet Cong. After killing a teacher, the soldiers in black uniforms were setting fire to buildings and fanatically dancing around the bonfires as a warning of more punishment if the whole village did not obey orders.

I knew the destroyers around me were only extras acting, but my face involuntarily twisted in pain and my eyes welled up with tears. I truly feared for my safety.

Outsiders, including city dwellers like my family, did not understand until too late what the Viet Cong were doing at the root of their extensive spy network: scaring many peasants into allegiance.

Even after the Phung family had two sons fighting for the Viet Cong, its officers still raped the youngest child, Le Ly, and later threatened to kill her mother.

*

I’ve been frustrated for years at books such as Frances FitzGerald’s “Fire in the Lake,” which seemed sympathetic to the Viet Cong as supposed rescuers of my birthplace from foreign invaders.

But now the Viet Cong government is in Vietnam and I’m here in the United States, where Hayslip still is considered by many in the Vietnamese American community to be a communist.

The reasons they cite are that she once served in a Viet Cong cadre and that her nonprofit group East Meets West builds hospitals in Vietnam because she works tightly with the current regime. This same group is also anti-normalization because it believes that helping the communist government will encourage it to continue to restrict human rights. That’s not the picture I got when I returned to Saigon this time last year, after filming in Thailand was done.

Since we were already in the country next door, I went to the place renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Relatives there told how life has improved in the last five years as trade ties with other countries have improved.

They now can listen to Voice of America on the radio without being punished. They actually have money to fix up their homes instead of worrying about the next meal. And to attract tourists and businesses, the government has renovated buildings, allowed women and girls to wear again the traditional dress ao dai (which communists once banned because it was bourgeois) and invited international phone companies in to hook up communication lines with the rest of the world.

But what was sweetest to me was that the word Saigon is printed on all postcards next to Ho Chi Minh City .

I felt I had lived two lifetimes. For the movie, there was the hell created by war. Then I visited what that hell has become. Although there still are problems and restrictions in Vietnam, what I saw was a promise of what could be if the nation were given a chance.

Others might not trust Hayslip, but I like how she ranks the welfare of the Vietnamese people over politics. It’s only by working together with our former enemies that wars are won.


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