Main cast: Michael Caine (Thomas Fowler), Brendan Fraser (Alden Pyle), Do Thi Hai Yen (Phuong), Rade Serbedzija (Inspector Vigot), and Tzi Ma (Hinh)
Director: Phillip Noyce
It is a lesson film makers and film critics don't seem to get: sometimes it may seem as if the male characters drive the show, but ultimately it is the female characters that are the foundations of the very story. Just like how Quills is a spectacular failure in that it is a movie that revolves entirely around a badly written female character catalyzing the changes in two men's lives, The Quiet American see two men having their lives changed irrevocably (and in the case of poor Alden Pyle, permanently) by a badly written female character.
The Quiet American is a chauvinist movie in that it overromanticizes Vietnamese (and to an extent, pan-Asian) women as either submissive China dolls (Phuong) or dragon ladies (her sister Hinh). Yet, paradoxically, it also criticizes America's foreign policy in its handling of the Vietnam crisis in the 1960s. America wasn't ready for this movie for more than a year - it can cut deep sometimes.
Thomas Fowler is a British journalist living in Vietnam as a correspondant. Blissfully unaware that his shelf life is close to approaching expiry date, he lives in idyllic despondancy with his mistress Phuong. But when he is recalled back to England, however, he realizes that he has to emerge from his comfortable caccoon-like existance. His life is complicated when American medical aide Alden Pyle falls in love with Phuong.
This movie prefers to concentrate on the love triangle in Graham Greene's novel as opposed to Greene's rather heavy-handed political anvils, and it's a blunder. Phuong is a non-entity, a submissive doll who lets herself be passed from Fowler to Pyne and back again uncomplaining and always silent. I am at loss to see why these two men would go so far to win her affections. Fowler's "If I lost her, it would be the beginning of death" will be impressive if he isn't waxing selfish, chauvinistic idiocy over a dumb silent doll. He treats Phuong more like an object than a human being. Maybe that's what all those American and British men want in the end: a silent, submissive China doll. Bah.
Michael Caine does a decent job playing a selfish bastard - he would be more effective if the script shows me why exactly is he reacting so much to the robotic Phuong. Brendan Fraser uses his goofball face to play a man with secrets pretty well. While Caine's routine is expected, Fraser's is not. In this case, Fraser has the upper hand over Caine. But knowing the way film critics work, it will be Caine playing yet another Michael Caine role that will win the accolades.
The movie is most successful when it cuts deep into America's blunders that set off the Vietnam war and the eventual triumph of communism in the country, but even that is a mixed kind of success. I definitely do not need to be hit in the head, but that is what this movie does: it hits me in the end with very obvious anvils.
But with its biggest element - the love triangle - remaining a massive failure due to the chauvinist treatment of Phuong (will it kill Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplay of this movie, to even give her a personality?), The Quiet American ends up a pretty unfocused movie. Nonetheless, it's a striking morality tale about how submissive personality-free pan-Asian girls can get a Caucasian horny pervert's balls literally cut off. Enjoy, all you future expatriates to this region of the world.
The soundtrack, though, is pure magic.
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