Tackling a serious subject, “Black Cactus” explores the mistreatment of Amerasians left behind by the Yank pullout. Unfortunately, this theme is thoroughly undercut by a routine soap approach and laughably inept tech credits.
The 20-year-old son of a local farm woman and an unknown African-American soldier, Lai (Viet Trinh) responds to village ostracism by becoming the best damn Vietnamese around. Of course, his penchant for illegal activities and self-mutilation sets him apart, too, but that doesn’t deter pretty Ma (Vo The Vy), who goes against family and social convention to be with him — prompting an unforgettably frenzied line from her mother: “Ma, did Lai lay you?”
He did, and since the folks won’t let them wed, Lai seeks the wealth of Ho Chi Minh City (everyone calls it Saigon), where the local equivalent of Joan Collins makes short work of him. Illiterate, he tries to make fumbling contact with Ma — and with his dad, somewhere in the States — but he’s in the dark when their baby is born.
So is helmer Le Dan, who daubs what looks like gray-green shoe polish on the babe to make him look more multiracial (with frequent close-ups yet). This clunky touch goes with lenser Dinh Anh Dung’s three modes: shock-zoom intensity, washed-out daylight and reflector-crazed night shots. It’s also hard to tell whether the hokey script or sloppy subtitles are more responsible for the tale’s many howlers: After a character gets blown up in an old American mine field, someone yells, “Hey, don’t go in there … it’s dangerous!”
Even so, pic engages, thanks to the sweet, naive tone set by its appealing leads (Viet Trinh is a real Amerasian, sans shoe polish), and its value as an ethno-political curiosity could give it some currency on educational circuits. Regular festival outlets, let alone arthouse distribs, won’t touch this “Cactus.”