SCMP Saturday, April 7, 2001
A silent coup in Vietnam
The light is fading rapidly in the square outside the old Saigon Opera house on the last day of shooting in Ho Chi Minh City for a new adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, and director Phillip Noyce desperately needs those last few shots before he can call it a wrap.
Relatively speaking, things have gone pretty well, but it has been a tough week of long, hot days punctuated with hundreds of those inevitable problems which, when combined, tend to fray the nerves and raise the blood pressure to dangerous levels.
"OK," Noyce bellows through a specially rigged public address system, crucial to the smooth co-ordination of a complex task made all the more difficult by the fact that instructions have to be relayed both in English and Vietnamese. "When I call action, I want the greens, the soldiers, to rush into the scene of the bombing and start to check out the wounded," Noyce shouts, his instructions repeated in rapid-fire Vietnamese. "Some of you are concerned that a relative might have been hurt, some of you are just looking around, stunned at the carnage. Got that?
"All right. Standby, and... action," he yells and scores of local extras playing Vietnamese civilians storm on to the set while the soldiers look on. "Cut, cut, cut, cut - cuuuuuut!" Noyce yells in frustration. "I said the soldiers were to rush to the scene! OK, let's try it again."
But it would be unfair to describe Noyce - the Australian director of previous hits which include Clear And Present Danger, The Bone Collector and Patriot Games - as unreasonably temperamental. The Quiet American is reportedly budgeted at US$30 million (HK$233 million) and every extra day of shooting costs the film's backers a small fortune, eating into box-office profits which are, after all, the primary reason for going to all this trouble. And, some say, recreating Saigon's 1952 colonial charm in what is now the modern, busy metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City is just asking for trouble.
If the shooting of The Quiet American is anything to go by, the movie production process is nothing short of painfully hard work, involving extensive and on-going negotiations with local authorities, a logistical challenge of almost military proportions, the construction of complex and meticulously authentic sets and the co-ordination of hundreds of crew and thousands of extras.
Behind the old Saigon Opera house is a fleet of trucks bearing generators and kilometres of lighting cable, make-up studios and portable toilets. Kitchens prepare food and drink in the 90 per cent relative humidity and 30-degree-Celsius heat, amid security checkpoints, crowd control barriers and nursing posts.
The square itself is strewn with the pulp, broken glass, sand-bagged sentry boxes, torn mannequins and twisted metal of a simulated market-place explosion; Citroens, Peugeots, Renaults and military vehicles from the 1950s replace the usual chaos of Japanese motorcycles and Korean sedans. And all of it has to be removed at the end of each day only to be set up in precisely the same location the following morning.
But despite the stress of the week-long shoot and just an hour-and-a-half after his minor on-set tantrum, Noyce is in good humour and enjoying a cold beer at the nearby Caravelle Hotel explaining his motivation for making The Quiet American, a book written by Greene in 1955.
"It's just such a good story - the tale of a love triangle and a murder mystery set amid an exotic country at war," he says. "It examines the ambiguity of motivation and the age-old question of whether to act or not to act. Not just personally, but also in terms of profound political issues such as what compelled America to interfere in the affairs of another country."
It's also a parable of the potential danger of good intention told through the eyes of Thomas Fowler - an ageing, world-weary foreign correspondent played by Sir Michael Caine - who has been seduced by the East's exoticism, the innocent charm and beauty of a Vietnamese woman 30 years his junior, and the escape from melancholy which comes with smoking opium.
Set in Saigon in 1952 during the height of Vietnam's war of independence from French colonial rule, it's also a story about the complexity of masculine pride, the egotistical need for men to provide for the women they love in order to possess them, the question of whether all is truly fair in love and war, and the triumph of age and experience over youth and naivete.
Co-starring as Fowler's rival in love is Brendan Fraser, who plays the earnest young US intelligence operative Alden Pyle, whose passion for democracy is equalled only by his infatuation for Fowler's young mistress, Phuong, played by 19-year-old Vietnamese ballet teacher Do Hai Yen.
Producer Bill Horberg said turning Greene's novel into a movie had been a personal ambition for 10 years, but that the most difficult task had been casting Phuong. "Hai Yen was actually accompanying her boyfriend who was auditioning for another part and she just blew us away," he recalls.
"We auditioned an amazing number of women for the role of Phuong, both here and in Los Angeles. But they all seemed too westernised, too worldly. We just kept coming back to Hai Yen - she has those perfect qualities of mystery and innocence which we believe authentically reflects what Vietnamese women of that time might have been."
Noyce's The Quiet American is actually a remake of a 1959 Hollywood production by Joseph L Mankiewicz which starred Audie Murphy as Pyle and which reportedly disgusted Greene, who considered it a complete betrayal of the message he wanted his novel to convey.
"I guess it's true that the Mankiewicz film turned the theme of the book on its head with Pyle portrayed as the film's anti-communist hero. But that was a different era - McCarthyism was strong in America at that time and I guess there was a lot of pressure to get some propaganda value out of it," Noyce says.
"But it's also true that in the book, Pyle is a character of little depth who served as a vehicle for Greene's own political views. That's also true of Phuong, but we are attempting to make both Pyle and Phuong a little more three-dimensional."
The director says that despite those and a few other changes to supporting characters, his objective is to be true to Greene's book, an eerily accurate prophecy which warned of the folly of America's later political and military intervention in Vietnam.
Perhaps that was the reason why the team behind this film pulled off something of a coup in getting permission to make a movie which looks at Vietnam through foreign eyes.
In 1997, the country's cultural authorities deemed the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as "anti-communist" and denied the producers permission to shoot in the country.
Getting permission to film in Vietnam remains a painfully laborious process, with producers required initially to approach the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Information. A detailed synopsis and the script must be submitted to the Culture Ministry's General Department of Photography who will examine the content for pornography, potentially seditious ideas or those which may incite violence, and to ensure the story line does not offend Vietnamese culture or "contradict historical accuracy".
Assuming that process is successful, the department's recommendations are sent to the People's Committees of towns or cities where shooting is to be conducted for further consideration and "suggestions". According to an official with the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Culture and Information, The Quiet American passed the review process without a single objection because it was an "ideologically sound" project which "exposes the ambitions of forces hostile to Vietnam and the plotting of foreign aggressors who seek to deny our independence, sovereignty and happiness".
But Noyce believes the criticism Vietnam received for rejecting Tomorrow Never Dies was unfair.
"I'm delighted at the co-operation we have received," he says. "We closed off Ho Chi Minh City's main square and a very busy main road. We also detonated two very large explosions in a part of the city which has some old and very beautiful architecture.
"Can you imagine being able to do that in Sydney or London or New York? Not a chance," he says. Noyce also says he has been hugely impressed by the talent and professionalism of the Vietnamese technicians who worked with his own production crew, a compliment returned by the director of the Hang Phim Giai Phong Production Company.
"It's been a real privilege to work with such a talented man as Mr Noyce," says Nguyen Ngoc Quang, whose career as a film-maker began as a combat photographer and propagandist for the National Liberation Front or Viet Cong.
"Our technicians are also very talented, but we have learned so much in terms of new special effects techniques and new technology. We welcome any other international production companies to come and work with us," he says.
Vietnamese low-budget film-makers have had a string of overseas successes at recent art-house festivals in Europe and the US, but Quang believes that co-production with overseas film-makers is the only realistic way to reinvigorate Vietnam's moribund domestic industry.
Indeed, some producers suggest the local industry is on the verge of collapse. When Hanoi producer Khai Hung began his career 25 years ago, Vietnam's film industry was making 80 features a year. In 1999 it made just a dozen, and box-office returns of 10 per cent of production costs would have industry executives elsewhere jumping from boardroom windows.
"Our equipment is very old and the themes of war-time victory and nation building are no longer popular with a growing audience who are more interested in imported films and videos," says Quang. "But I hope The Quiet American will go some way towards resolving our problems."
Noyce also believes that Vietnam, with its relatively cheap production costs and geographical and environmental diversity, has a huge but as yet unrealised potential for co-productions with international movie producers.
The director is confident post-production will be completed in time for release of The Quiet American in the US in the new year.