Household Saints

Directed by Nancy Savoca

An autobiographical odyssey that fills in only some of the pertinent blanks, Tiana’s From Hollywood to Hanoi is evocative but not always enlightening. Originally named Thi Tranh Nga, Tiana is a karate expert, actress, singer, and now documentary maker whose family left Saigon, where her father was a high foreign-ministry official, in 1966. She sketches her life very quickly at the beginning of her film—so quickly that, just in the small stack of clips from American newspapers provided by the film’s publicist, there’s much confusion. No one seems to know just how old Tiana is, some report that her family initially settled in San Jose (it was actually Northern Virginia), and others seem to think that the documentary is the account of her first trip back to Vietnam, when in fact it was filmed during many subsequent ones. (She didn’t even have a camera crew on her initial visit.) It’s fitting that Roger & Me‘s Michael Moore, also known for an elastic approach to continuity, is among Hanoi‘s boosters.

Since they’re principally in her own biography, Tiana’s ellipses aren’t an ethical lapse. Still, a little more background detail would help. Hanoi opens with a clip from one of the exploitation flicks in which the director played a tough karate-kicking heroine, but she explains almost nothing about that previous career (as Tiana Alexandra), and the appearance of a snippet from one of her music videos (as Tiana Banana) is even more mysterious. It’s all supposed to create a heady cross-cultural atmosphere, but the film would be more effective if its central character were better grounded.

Tiana is the only constant, as Hanoi‘s topics and tone change rapidly. She interrupts reminiscences of her own Vietnamese-American experience with those both of her older relatives and of unthoughtful teen-agers who don’t remember the country and don’t even quite know where it is. (A hyphenate-American’s assimilation is presumably complete when his geographical skills atrophy.) After Tiana arrives in Vietnam, the witnesses expand to include North Vietnamese officials, boorish Australians, My Lai survivors, children fathered by American GIs, actress cousins who contemplate a copy of Playboy and complain about their boyfriends, and Tiana’s still-anti-communist uncle, fresh from a prison camp. Old footage yields American GIs, complaining that the local women are “gooks,” and Gen. Westmoreland (from Hearts and Minds), explaining that life is cheap in Asia. (In a very Moore moment, Tiana finds the perfect circumstance to challenge him on this assertion: at the premiere of Miss Saigon, where Westy’s wearing a traditional conical Vietnamese peasant’s hat.)

Some of the testimony and the situations seem a little pat. Tiana visits, both before and after the operation that separates them, Siamese twins named “North” and “South,” and intercuts a 1962 Army film explaining that aerial spraying of herbicides over Vietnam has “no harmful effects on animals or human beings” with shots of deformed fetuses and infants preserved in jars. (The suggestion that the two are linked requires more than this fleeting treatment.) As for the Aussie who explains that “Vietnam is like a beautiful girl, and beautiful girls tend to get raped on college campuses,” perhaps his comment says more about Australia than either Vietnam or the U.S.

Once a girl whose father called her “Catherine” after JFK gave her a Chatty Cathy doll and warned her that she’d be turned over to Ho Chi Minh if she didn’t eat her vegetables, Tiana finds herself alienated and fascinated by Hanoi, where she dances with Oliver Stone as the locals scurry home to watch an English instruction program on TV. Anglo-American pop culture both follows her and is dragged along as she explores: Aside from the obvious (the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”) and the found (Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” at a disco), Tiana employs “To Sir With Love” for the scene where she and her cousins recall their crushes on American soldiers, and the “Rawhide” theme for a shot of Vietnamese cowboys in the central highlands.

Scenes like those showing an elephant riding in the back of a truck or a dog being killed and cleaned for somebody’s dinner are merely exotic, but Tiana frequently demonstrates a powerful, if sometimes goofy, link between her two countries. With the Chu-Chi tunnels as a tourist attraction, Frisbees in Hue, and Coke on all the shelves, it’s only natural that Tiana’s relatives in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon) were able to celebrate her visit by playing a video of one of her action movies.

Unaware of the existence of Francine Prose’s Household Saints when I entered the theater, it didn’t take me long to conclude that director Nancy Savoca’s film had been adapted from a novel; its extensive cast of supporting characters and lengthy timeline are both better suited to the page than to the screen. I now know that the novel is better than the movie—the narrative details jumbled or eliminated in just the first few minutes are enough to dilute the flavor and coarsen the wit of the original—but even without opening the book it was clear that Prose had certain advantages over her adaptors, Savoca and co-scripter Richard Guay.

Unfolding over three decades in a Little Italy household, the novel can make transitions that the film finds awkward. Playing Catherine Falconetti (soon to be Santangelo), Tracey Ullman makes an unconvincing 17-year-old at the film’s outset, and the shift from the story of Catherine and Joseph (Vincent D’Onofrio) Santangelo to that of their daughter Teresa (Lili Taylor) chops the film in half: First come the Old-World ’50s, when Catherine survives the vicious superstitions of her harridan mother-in-law, Carmela (Judith Malina), who insists that Catherine will give birth to a chicken because she watched Joseph kill a turkey; then it’s time for the new-frontier ’60s, when everyone has become modern except for Teresa, who unpacks her grandmother’s peasant-Christian fetishes and aspires doggedly to sainthood.

Improvising a lower-Manhattan recipe for magic realism, Savoca opens Saints with a bit of Madame Butterfly. It’s the fantasy of Catherine’s brother Nicky (Michael Rispoli), a maladjusted opera buff and radio repairman, which ends when the radio shorts out. The film is full of such dreamlike and symbolic sequences, as well as lots of celestial camera angles, but it’s most convincing when the details are naturalistic—like the way Nicky and his father sleep in the same bed, even after Catherine’s married and moved out of her room—and Italian-American. (Savoca’s account of Nicky’s unfortunate end, for example, reveals that she doesn’t understand the mechanics of seppuka.)

In their respective ways, Carmela, Catherine, and Teresa all believe in miracles, a belief Saints can’t decide how seriously to take. With Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and the Moody Blues’ “Question” on the soundtrack, the film seems to mock Teresa’s transcendent ambitions, but it’s hard to say if the young woman’s visitation from Jesus (whose shroud she offers to clean) is meant to play as silly as it does. Such problems of tone bedevil the film, which despite some strong performances and inventive moments ultimately finds Prose’s novel too much to handle. It might not have taken a miracle to transfer the book to the screen effectively, but it would have required a steadier sense of style than Savoca demonstrates here.

Though not literally a koan, or Zen riddle—submerged in its pensive flow, it actually has a wisp of a plot—Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is more a meditation exercise than a movie. As such, it requires a receptive viewer; there’s no way that Bae Yong-Kyun’s film will win over the average Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Martin Scorsese fan. Those who see it may wonder at Bae’s listing among his major influences of David Lean, but not of Robert Bresson and Hermann Hesse.

Though there are a few scenes in a bustling and clearly contemporary Korean city—“the world,” the film’s characters call it—most of Bodhi-Dharma is set in a timeless mountain forest, site of a remote monastery occupied by only three people: old Zen master Hyegok (Yi Pan Yong), young monk Kibong (Sin Won Sop), and orphaned boy Haejin (Huang Hae Jin). (Following Bresson, Bae has cast non-actors in these roles.) Other characters include a jay, a cow, a rushing stream, the forest, some maggots, and fire, all contemplated with such care and rendered with such beauty that three participants in Sight and Sound‘s 1992 poll named this one of the 10 best films of all time.

Crafted over a period of eight years by Bae, a painting teacher who photographed and edited in addition to writing, directing, and producing, the film is deliberate and delicate, a saga of death and rebirth keyed to images of elemental forces, especially fire. “The universe is deep in the shadows,” states Bodhi-Dharma (named after the fifth-century monk who carried Zen east from India), and there are recurring shots that contrast those deep shadows with the intense red heart of a flame (eventually, of course, of a funeral pyre). Lovely and exasperating, the film achieves a poetic stillness, if not satori. Those not in the mood may find that its 135-minute reverie seems longer than several cycles of reincarnation.