Movie Review: Giái phóng Sài Gòn

Movie review: Giái phóng Sài Gòn [The Liberation of Saigon] (Vietnam, 2007)  

Watch the film here  

Hardly any American male who came of age during the latter half of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s was left untouched by the Vietnam War. Whether one was there and had the good luck to make it back in one piece or if one had the even greater luck of an impossibly-high draft lottery number, or whether we spent those years demonstrating in the streets, resisting the war in the Guard or Reserves, as expatriates or even in jail, “’Nam” was the defining event of a generation. Many of us can still remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on the morning of April 30, 1975 when the American media reported that Saigon had “fallen” and had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and that the decades-long nightmare was finally over.  

In American popular culture the Vietnam conflict has long since been declared a closed book.  War resisters were amnestied. Truth-telling movies like “Platoon” were made, causing a sensation, and were then forgotten. The most important military and political lessons of Vietnam (the “Vietnam Syndrome”) were officially written off and discarded during the Reagan regime.  Later on, thankfully, normal relations between America and Vietnam were ultimately restored and today U.S. tourists can enjoy visiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and American consumers can find Vietnamese-made shirts for sale at any big-box superstore.  

Historical amnesia about this period can certainly be seen as a healthy repudiation of an evil chapter in American history. However, the final liberation of Saigon is a story that should be forgotten neither by those of us whose lives were changed forever by resisting that war nor by younger progressive Americans who are struggling today to realize the very same dream that we had decades ago: peace, freedom and an end to American imperial intervention overseas.  

Giái phóng Sài Gòn is a made-for-TV movie from Vietnam Television 1 (VTV1), and is sponsored online by the Association of Vietnamese Students in Korea. This film  is a full-length (two hour) dramatic reenactment of the final events leading up to the people’s victory in southern Vietnam. None of the old, sometimes poor quality, mostly black-and-white documentary footage from the era is used in the movie, and all the main characters are portrayed by actors. The technical quality of the movie’s online version is limited, although generally ample for small-screen viewing.  Professional-quality DVD’s or downloads of the movie appear to be unavailable in North America.  

However, this should not be taken to imply that the quality of the movie’s content is in any way lacking. It seems to have a cast of thousands and was filmed with virtually unlimited resources. The movie appears to have none of the cinematic fakery or tricks that Hollywood would apply to falsify scenes that would be too difficult or expensive to film with live actors. One can almost smell the stench of battle.  

The movie begins in early 1975, after major American combat forces have been withdrawn from Vietnam.  The first scene opens with a shot of the jungle headquarters of the National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong,”), switching from there to battles against Saigon government firebases and scenes in Saigon itself, including the American embassy and CIA station, and to the old Saigon presidential palace. As the days pass the Saigon army seems to be unexpectedly falling apart almost faster than the liberation forces can advance, and liberation commanders realize that the window for a final offensive (which had been programmed for 1976 or 1977) might be far nearer than expected.  

After much heated discussion, the liberation forces opt for a total push before monsoons begin in May, 1975, a go-for-broke operation they eventually name after legendary Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh.  The former imperial capital of Hue is liberated along with the former American airbase at Da Nang, and after a pitched battle at Xuan Loc the way to the southern capital is clear.  

The people of Saigon are sick of war and misrule. From herbal doctors to Buddhist nuns to government employees, all are working for the day when it will all be over. Resistance agents organize open public meetings on Saigon streets while government soldiers throw down their arms or hide red-blue-and-gold National Liberation Front flags under their shirts. Government pilots are ordered by their officers to desert with their planes to Taipei. At the end, after overcoming last-ditch defenses the liberation forces enter the capital to cheers and tears. Interim president “Big” Minh is arrested by liberation soldiers and brought at gunpoint to the national broadcasting station to read the surrender.  

The biggest positive of this movie, aside from an extreme concern for historic accuracy, is its lack of glorification of war or violence. Liberation soldiers are not superwomen or supermen. The US-sponsored Saigon government, even though corrupt and servile, is not led by cartoon monsters, and even the US Ambassador and CIA station chief appear as believable, although sinister, villains. And even though “the victors write the history,” the war is never portrayed as anything but a tragedy, exemplified by a brief, iconic love story between a woman from Hanoi and man from Saigon, a story ending in horror.  Viewers can share the emotions of the people and of the liberation forces as the old regime falls but the feeling is always more one of exhausted relief than one of arrogant, flag-waving triumph.  

The greatest drawback to this movie for most American viewers is the lack of subtitles. The dialogue is almost entirely in Vietnamese, aside from brief voice-under English-language scenes set in the American embassy or CIA offices. Even there, the fact that filmmakers chose not to use American actors for these characters is annoying.  The English dialogue is often wooden and sometimes badly accented.  Some Americans who know no Vietnamese may find watching a two-hour movie in a language they cannot understand a frustrating experience.  For these viewers, an indispensable companion to the movie is a detailed history like Clark Dougan and David Fulghum’s 1985 book, The Fall of The South, which, although long out of print, is still easily available from online sellers of used books.  

This movie reminds us once again that even in the most horribly adverse circumstances, “Yes, we can!” The immense value of the film in clarifying a key moment of modern history that has been conveniently deleted from our national memory, the first hands-down defeat of American imperial expansion, clearly overcomes the difficulty that even a progressive American viewer might experience in watching the movie. Whether you lived through it or not, this one is a “must see.”