Saturday, November 14, 2009

1984 - The Killing Fields

One of the many benefits of living in New York City is that you can discover a new eatery every night (if you were so inclined) without ever having to dine at the same place twice. And there are restaurants specialising in just about everything. Yesterday, after a quick Google search for a place to eat near the location of our later plans that evening, Kat and I dined at S'MAC, a quaint little establishment whose menu consists entirely of variations of macaroni and cheese. Artery clogging, I'm sure, but delicious nonetheless.

Before that culinary delight, I watched another nominee from 1984's Best Picture line-up...

The Killing Fields
Roland Joffé
Bruce Robinson
(based on the New York Times Magazine article 'The Death and Life of Dith Pran' by Sydney Schanberg)
Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Supporting Actor

The Killing Fields relates the true story of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg as he covers the effects of the Vietnam War on neighbouring Cambodia. By his side is Dith Pran, his interpreter, guide, co-reporter and friend all rolled into one. As the situation in the war-torn country progressively deteriorates and Pran's life becomes more and more endangered, Schanberg and his other journo buddies desperately attempt to keep him safe in the midst of their evacuation.

As you can probably tell by that brief description, this is one hell of a serious film, made all the more sombre when considering its basis on reality. It takes a short while to become engaged with the story but once you're hooked, it's like a roller-coaster ride ... that is, if the roller-coaster was continually screaming further and further downwards. Every time you think there's rising track ahead, it seems to just sink deeper into the ground. Not that the film is completely depressing. I mean, it is, but not completely. There's plenty of hope and friendship and moments of courage. But the tension as Pran's dire circumstances become direr consistently deliver genuine "What's going to happen now?" moments. All the way to the end.

The Oscar-winning cinematography is simultaneously gorgeous and gritty. Mike Oldfield's score is a strange blend of electronica and choral music, but it somehow works. And the decision not to include subtitles for any of the foreign language dialogue cleverly adds to the tension. Plus, when you consider that Haing S. Ngor, who portrayed Pran, essentially suffered through the same experience in his own life, it makes for a truly harrowing film. His moving performance earned him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Not bad for a guy who had never acted before.

A pre-Law and Order Sam Waterston provides humanity to Schanberg, the journalist with integrity. John Malkovich is at his outbursting best as Schanberg's photographer. The token Aussie reporter on the scene is played by the King of Australian television, Graham Kennedy. It was especially gratifying to hear him use some Strine. The word "bung" is not a word I've heard since leaving Down Under, and I didn't realise how much I missed it.

1 comment:

  1. I had last seen "The Killing Fields" during its theatrical release. I remember being most impressed by its authenticity and by Haing S. Ngor's naturalistic performance. I hadn't been as emotionally involved in Sydney Shanberg's story back then. Perhaps it was due to his self-serving agenda, or maybe just Sam Waterston's screen persona.

    Seeing it again last week, these issues didn't seem as strong. On the contrary, I was moved by Shanberg's guilt over not being able to get Dith Pran out of Cambodia, his belief in Pran's survival and his efforts to locate him. So, overall my appreciation of the film was elevated on this re-visit.

    Producer David Puttman had won the Best Picture prize three years earlier for "Chariots of Fire" and his public criticism of Warren Beatty's winning Best Director (for Reds) over Hugh Hudson caused some resentment. This may have hurt "The Killing Field's" chances in '84. Most pundits felt the contest was between "Amadeus" and "A Passage to India."