The second film adaptation of Graham Greene's novel from 1956 was suppressed here when it came out in 2002, because producers feared to release a movie that criticized U.S. foreign policy at the time. Just thought I'd throw that in to remind us all of that wonderful time after 9/11 when we ALL were UNITED...or else.
Anyway, it's an interesting take on colonialism and Vietnam before the U.S. war, seen through the eyes of Fowler, an aging British expatriate journalist in Saigon (played by Michael Caine) as his cozy world of detachment, opium and hot sex with a pretty local woman is shaken up, first by scrutiny from the home office, then by the arrival of Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a seemingly goofy innocent American volunteer on a mission to treat trachoma outbreaks in the outlying villages. A love triangle ensues, complicated by Fowler's wife back in the UK, a devout Catholic who refuses to divorce him, vs. the girlfriend Phuong's protective sister as well as her own desire for a real future, which Pyle offers in the form of a nice suburban marriage in the richest superpower in the world during its most prosperous decade. Phuong is loyal, but she's not stupid. The movie (apparently like the novel before it) doesn't allow Phuong much of an inner life, but Do Thi Hay Yen enriches her role with some subtle acting; you can see her thinking through her situation even as she plays the "sweet Oriental flower" for the foreign men who are enthralled with her.
But it's the geopolitical story that really fascinates in this movie. France is fading as a colonial power and can no longer hold back an emerging Communist uprising, while the Americans are counting on what they call a "third force" to bring stability and independence to the country. A mysterious "General The" has emerged as an alternate revolutionary force, but where did he come from? And where is he getting his support? I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but if you know about the history of the region, the answers are pretty obvious.
The movie is framed as a flashback after Pyle's body is found in the Mekong River. Who would wish to kill this innocent aw-shucks goofball? This is the part you have to see for yourself, 'cause I ain't telling. But when the pieces fall together, it all makes sense.
There's another performance in the movie worth mentioning: that of Fowler's friend/contact/news source Hihn, played by Tzi Ma. Through the course of the movie, we discover he is more than just the obligatory local color; in his final scene, the emotions in his face are more powerful than the shock of what we see him doing. Suddenly a minor character's whole life comes into sharp focus. Tzi Ma doesn't appear in many scenes, but that one moment should have won him an Oscar.