Heaven and Earth, directed by Oliver Stone, begins in the central Vietnamese village of Ky La. The farmers there have an intimate relationship with the land. For centuries they have lived in sync with the cycles of planting and harvesting. Their Buddhist spirituality also includes a reverence for ancestors and efforts to keep the opposing forces of life in balance. This is a difficult task given the violent and dehumanizing intrusions of war and convulsive change upon their daily lives.
The narrator of Heaven and Earth is Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le), the favorite daughter of her father (Haing S. Ngor), a farmer who has suffered under the successive invasions of the Japanese and the French. Now the villagers are caught up in the crossfire between the Communist Viet cong and the South Vietnamese army. In the midst of this conflagration, Le Ly struggles to find out the song her spirit has been singing since the moment of her birth.
After her two brothers join the Viet Cong, she volunteers to help the Communist cause. The South Vietnamese capture and torture her. When her mother (Joan Chen) buys her release from prison, the Viet Cong conclude that Le Ly has collaborated with the enemy. She is raped by a Viet Cong officer who calls her a traitor to her people.
Unwelcome in her village, she flees to Saigon with her mother. They find employment as servants in the comfortable home of an aristocrat. This idyll is shattered when the mistress of the house discovers that Le Ly is pregnant with her husband's child. In Danang, the dislocated farm girl peddles cigarettes to GIs, becomes a bar hostess, and is finally rescued by Steve (Tommy Lee Jones), a U.S. Marine who takes her back to San Diego with him.
As Steve's wife, Le Ly finds in motherhood the song she was meant to sing. But America does not completely heal her spirit. Her husband is overcome by guilt over the atrocities he committed in Vietnam. Although Le Ly tries to convince him that she shares his pain, he eventually commits suicide.
Le Ly takes her three sons to visit her family in the village. As she learns more about how her relatives survived the war, she is reconciled with them. "You have completed your cycle of growth," her mother says to her. "Low tide to high tide, poor to rich, sad to happy, beggar to fine lady." Le Ly realizes that it has been her destiny to become a person who lives in the twilight zone between South and North, East and West, peace and war, Vietnam and America.
Through her Buddhist perspective this resourceful survivor sees suffering as a gift "to teach us to be strong when we are weak, to be brave when we are afraid, to be wise in the midst of confusion and to let go of that which we can no longer hold." Heaven and Earth touches the heart not only as a cross-cultural treasure but as Oliver Stone's most soulful movie.
Heaven and Earth is based on Le Ly Hayslip's memoirs. Stone has chosen her spiritual odyssey as the third and final part of his moral examination of the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). The DVD version contains commentary by the director as well as some extended scenes.