Perhaps written in the wake of The Killing Fields (1984), this timely story of Vietnamese refugees attempting to assimilate in a southern Texas fishing community under the postwar cloud of embittered war veterans, unemployment, and the influence of a KKK agitator may have been too much of an amalgam to fit into a 100 minute running time, or perhaps French director Louis Malle felt a more impressionistic approach to seething bitterness within pockets of American culture was the best method to hit all the bases without sermonizing to audiences, and heading into more clichéd dramatics (as was the pungent case in Alan Parker’s highly manipulative Mississippi Burning, made three years later).
To the credit of Malle and screenwriter Alice Arden (Silkwood, The Weight of Water), there’s a deliberate effort to convey a sense of local vernacular (rife with raw profanity and racist epithets), and capture the grimy nature of an insular, economically fragile community stressed from the shock of a new culture ‘dropped’ on their doorstep by the government.
The locations are extremely vivid, as are the faces of local talent which help steer minor characters away from outright stereotypes, and Malle also invests plenty of visual detail to cover the local industry where fisherman ensnare, sort, process, and ship crayfish to local markets, but although Alamo Bay may begin as a lesson in tolerance, it ends with a rather clichéd finale that’s capped with a vague resolution for the so-called victor.
Arden’s script is supposedly crafted from a series of actual news events, folded and telescoped into a familiar set of archetypes where immigrants are poorly received by a staid community, and the intolerance is coordinated between bitter war vet Shang (Ed Harris, with massive facial hair) about to lose his trawling boat to the bank; former flame Glory (Amy Madigan) now running her father’s processing plant; and a newcomer, Dinh (novice actor Ho Nguyen) determined to buy his own boat and fulfill the American dream through hard work.
Shang’s forced decision to return to cheaper crab fishing while the town’s Vietnamese fishermen acquire a supposedly larger piece of the bay's crayfish take becomes a perfect opportunity for a KKK agitator to arrive and exploit seething discontent, much in the way Charles Beaumont dramatized a slick stranger who exploits a town’s latent prejudices and sense of mounting injustice into attacking African Americans in the novel and film The Intruder (1962).
Shang eventually takes over as the leader of angry, disenfranchised locals, gathers the fishermen into a small armada, and forces the Vietnamese out of town, save for Dinh, who’s determined to eke out his own life after having survived his own trauma at the hands of Communist forces during the war.
Screenwriter Arden eventually brings the ex-lovers towards a fiery face-off, and the emotional wreckage at the film’s conclusion leaves things open (and vague) as to whether Glory will leave her hometown - now fully outraged by the insular mentality of her neighbours, and having little interest in running the processing plant that damaged and drained her father (Donald Moffat).
In spite of some strong sequences – Glory and Shang’s lurid bar dance (set to a song co-sung by Madigan and composer Ry Cooder), the gun-toting flotilla assault, and the fishing montages – Malle’s distance from the characters offers little backstories beyond those of ex-lovers Glory and Shang. Dinh’s own ‘moment’ occurs close to the end of the film in a short bar scene in which he mentions, very briefly, his flight from Vietnam during the war. As the film’s most important character – the new American – Dinh never manages to resonate with viewers; his scenes are designed to bring leading characters into emerging conflicts, and he’s often (literally) pushed aside, especially in the finale where he’s knocked unconscious during Glory and Shang’s final confrontation.
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Perhaps to avoid extra clutter, the script downplays the effects of war, making viewers accept that the rage within Shang and some of his cohorts stems from their own personal experiences in the army, while the more tolerant citizens – with or without combat trauma - are presented as just reasonable, if not practical minded folks.
Curtis Clarks’ slightly docu-styled cinematography is very engaging, especially when Malle mandates sustained close-ups of his cast; the use of a zoom lens is also potent in the menacing flotilla scene, flattening the sharp lines and angles of the boats and gun-toting fishers into a kind of advancing barbed menace.
Ry Cooder’s music is quite sparse, and underscores the most serious conflicts or appears as brief theme statements which help to lighten the mood after an abrasive verbal exchange. The score does move from a formal bluegrass instrumentation towards the gradual integration of Vietnamese sounds – through harmonics and percussion textures – and the End Credits perhaps offers a portent of the cultural harmony / integration that’s lacking in Malle’s closing sustained shot.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents a nice HD transfer of this long unavailable film, with a clean mono track, plus Cooder’s score in true stereo on an isolated track. The theatrical trailer is snappily edited but presents too much visual information, spoiling several major scenes. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide some needed context to Malle’s American work – which includes the infamous Pretty Baby (1978), and the cult art film My Dinner wit Andre (1981) – and his taste for critiquing cultural taboos on celluloid.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan