The past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past—in The Weight of Water, Kathryn Bigelow’s fiercely wrought, if sub-Faulknerian, time-twister. Adapted from Anita Shreve’s novel, The Weight of Water is a mystery that, like last summer’s Possession, proceeds simultaneously on two temporal tracks, with more visceral results.
True story: During the night of March 5, 1873, two women, both Norwegian immigrants, were hacked to death on Smuttynose Island, 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast, while a third was found hiding in a sea cave. The women’s erstwhile boarder was hanged for the crime, but who knows what really happened? Which brings us to the fictional gloss: Some 125 years later, a magazine photographer (Catherine McCormack) assigned to shoot a photo-essay on the gruesome events sails to Smuttynose in the company of her husband, a hard-drinking, Pulitzer-winning poet (Sean Penn), his brother (Josh Lucas), and the brother’s current girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley).
The Weight of Water opens as dank 19th-century hubbub—with the surviving immigrant (Sarah Polley) giving testimony at the trial—then flashes back to what may or may not have happened at the crime scene, before leaping headlong into the uneasy present. The doggedly grim McCormack is hoping to enjoy a working vacation, but she’s spooked both by desolate Smuttynose and the suspicion that Penn is either having or about to embark on an affair with Hurley. (A walking provocation, Hurley not only quotes the Penn character’s poetry, but has a distracting habit of fellating ice cubes while sunbathing topless on the deck.)
Bigelow weaves this ambiguous marital thriller with a more compelling Nordic tale of incest, jealousy, and murder. There are mysterious selkie voices in the sea wind and portents bobbing on the waves as the action shifts back and forth between two isolated, claustrophobic locales—the sailboat of suspicion and the island of insanity, where Polley’s lonely fisherwife is cooped up with a mean-spirited older sister (the late Katrin Cartlidge) and a beautiful, sensuous sister-in-law (Vinessa Shaw). The movie is smoothly edited and the mise-en-scène strenuously atmospheric. Skies lower, clouds race, and chiaroscuro runs rampant with over-saturated colors to suggest a world that’s always five minutes past sunset.
The Weight of Water has a literary undercurrent—it has to incorporate shards of poetry in the maelstrom—and ample foreshadowing. But like Bigelow’s earlier movies, it’s lazily scripted. The plot is filled with inconsistencies; the dialogue borders on risible. The experience is structural and visual. Bigelow keeps her camera close to the actors and intentionally confuses matters by accentuating the resemblance between McCormack and Hurley (and Polley and Shaw). As the modern couples are drawn into the vortex of an ancient evil, or rather, into the photographer’s attempt to grasp that evil, Bigelow boldly tries for a thaumatrope effect, spinning ever more quickly between her stories until they begin to merge. Whose sexual betrayal is precipitating whose? The morose, lurid frenzy culminates in a pair of dark and stormy nights with a flurry of further-back flashbacks and violence crackling like a lightning bolt across the centuries.
Two years on the shelf, The Weight of Water is certainly a personal project and one that, particularly in its off-kilter casting (with Penn and Hurley essentially playing movie stars), suggests of strategic compromise. As with Possession, the contemporary story is overshadowed by the period material. It’s also marred by a discordant arrangement of one-note performances. The movie is lovingly detailed but unaccountably clumsy, obviously ambitious, and unfortunately chintzy. It’s also genuinely anachronistic. Given the two-dimensional characters and the surplus of visual metaphor for their poorly expressed yet outsized passions, this might have made a great silent film.
The past isn’t even close to being past in Daughter From Danang and, what’s more, it’s a foreign country. A Sundance prizewinner included in last spring’s “New Directors/New Films,” Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s documentary follows a Vietnamese American woman brought to the U.S. in the 1975 Operation Babylift back to meet her birth mother.
Operation Babylift was supposedly a program to rescue orphans, but Heidi Bub (née Mai Thi Hiep), whose father was a U.S. soldier, was packed off by a mother frightened that the North Vietnamese were preparing to kill all mixed-race children. (That her husband, who deserted her to join the Vietcong eight years before, was also returning home may also have been a factor.) Consequently, seven-year-old Heidi was put on a plane and brought up in Pulaski, Tennessee—the town in which the original Ku Klux Klan was founded—by a remarkably withholding and punitive single mother who, according to Heidi, told her to conceal her Vietnamese background and threw her out when she was in college for returning from a date 10 minutes after curfew. (The estrangement was evidently permanent. Heidi’s adoptive mother never appears in the doc.)
The twice-rejected Heidi married her high school sweetheart, a navy officer, and is herself the mother of two small daughters. Sweetly bovine, she seems younger than her age, and thoroughly Americanized—not least in her search for unconditional maternal love. Heidi’s trip fulfills long-nurtured fantasies, but these great expectations come to naught—or worse. Heidi’s emotional reunion with her birth mother, Mai Thi Kim, and half siblings gives way to mutual misunderstanding. Mother Kim all but smothers her lost child in sticky affection while Heidi, having found what she wanted, becomes increasingly defensive and disoriented. Before long, their strong physical resemblance extends to matching unhappy frowns.
After a few days in Vietnam, the American daughter is desperate to change the channel and go home—shocked and overwhelmed by this brand-new family blatantly trying to milk her for financial support. Daughter From Danang is like the unhappy outtake from last year’s PBS documentary on Babylift reunions, Precious Cargo. Whatever heartwarming scene the impressively discreet filmmakers may have expected to record with their mini DV, they show a remarkable ability to document both sides of this emotional car-wreck. It’s a sad story that grows sadder.
Heidi herself is a product of American altruism and ethnocentrism. (Dolgin and Franco incorporate amazing vintage footage of a U.S. social worker browbeating Vietnamese mothers to send their children to America—it’s a pity they don’t provide information on what became of those racially mixed kids who remained.) Operation Babylift itself was an attempt to provide some semblance of an American happy ending to the Vietnam debacle. But as Daughter From Danang demonstrates, the war’s scars may take another generation to heal.
Nearly a found allegory of American-Vietnamese relations, Daughter From Danang is among the 35 films included in BAM’s month-long “From Hanoi to Hollywood.” Never more timely, the series includes blockbusters and guerrilla newsreels, period documentaries and premieres, as well as a few features from the scene of the crime, Vietnam.
The opening attraction is Samuel Fuller’s rarely screened China Gate—which, released in 1957, was something of a scoop as the first Hollywood movie about Vietnam (opening six months before the original version of The Quiet American). Despite Fuller’s later characterization of China Gate as a critique of French imperialism, the movie is stridently anti-Communist and easily used to justify American involvement. That said, it’s enormously entertaining pulp, delivered with Fullerian formalist brio, and totally, productively crazy. Fuller’s rugged individualism and tabloid integrity explode the black-and-white moral schemata, while peppering the action sequences with brutal jokes on the insanity of infantry life.
China Gate is set during the final months of French rule, but the cast of characters effectively prophesy the war’s next stage. One of the Americans fighting with the French Foreign Legion (Gene Barry) is a white supremacist; the other (Nat “King” Cole) is a black man under the delusion that if he can only rid the world of commies, America will become a safe place for him to live. The resident Communist ideologue (Lee Van Cleef) is a former school teacher more “innocent monster” than bloodthirsty bandit, and our heroine, a Eurasian prostitute known as Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson), wants nothing more than to get her little son to the U.S.A. It’s as though America’s war began and ended with Operation Babylift.
The contradictions are explosive. One need only bracket China Gate with John Wayne’s 1968 The Green Berets for the latter (also included in the series) to blow up in its own face. In addition to rounding up the usual suspects, the BAM series has a few surprises, including Frederic Wiseman’s Viet-era documentary Basic Training (1971), Ivan Passer’s mordant Cutter’s Way (1981)—still the best of the Viet-vet movies—and Dang Nhat Minh’s When the Tenth Month Comes (1984), an understated and poignant account of what the Vietnamese call the American War.
“Mother Countries: A Talk With the Makers of Daughter From Danang” by Anthony Kaufman