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Date: 11 February, 2004



'Since the war Vietnam has experienced an extraordinarily high level of birth abnormalities, and not only in the children - and now the grandchildren - of war veterans.'

Battle's Poison Cloud, Lost in Translation, Cold Mountain, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Kitchen Stories. Battle's Poison Cloud review by Malcolm Lewis, courtesy of New Internationalist magazine. Other reviews by Catherine von Ruhland.

Battle's Poison Cloud
Directed by Cecile Trijssenaar

During their 'American War', the Vietcong, although poorly equipped, were able to control large areas of South Vietnam using the cover of the jungle. The US military, with its massively superior firepower, could never find, and so could not destroy, their enemy.

The American solution was horribly simple - destroy the jungle that hid the guerrillas. And so they dropped 70 million tons of the dioxin-based Agent Orange (named after the colour of the label on the chemical drums). The US stripped around 15 per cent of the South of vegetation.

It didn't work and the defeated Americans abandoned the country. They left behind a deadly legacy - dioxin is 100,000 times more toxic than any natural poison. Since the war Vietnam has experienced an extraordinarily high level of birth abnormalities, and not only in the children - and now the grandchildren - of war veterans.

Trijssenaar's film documents the evidence, interviewing Vietcong and American veterans, Vietnamese, American and Canadian scientists and academics, and shows the terrible effects of dioxin poisoning.

The fear is that dioxin damages DNA, but not only veterans are affected. An independent Canadian survey discovered dioxin 'hot-spots' in and around one-time American bases and supply depots. Bien Hoa City Lake has the world's most poisoned water - yet people still eat the lake's vegetation, fish and ducks.

Three million died in the war and Professor Le Cao Dai, ex-Director of the Red Cross Agent Orange Fund, believes the chemical aftermath has affected over a million Vietnamese. The US Government accepts responsibility for its own poisoned war veterans, but none for its pollution of Vietnam.

The Vietnamese Government wants a clean up yet tries to suppress the story, fearful of its effect on the export of rice and fish. Trijssenaar filmed secretly and smuggled the tapes out of Vietnam. Her lucidly argued film gives a voice to Vietnam's victims of military simplicities.

To purchase a copy of the film, visit

Lost in Translation
Ceritifcate 15, directed by Sofia Coppola, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson - on general release

To Western eyes, Tokyo seems a universe away. It's not just the obvious language barrier. Its perceived 'otherness' of culture and race enables Hollywood stars to kid themselves that they're in another world and so sell their image to the highest bidder for local consumption while hoping that America will never know.

Washed-up actor Bob Harris (a world-weary Bill Murray) is in town promoting whisky. His picture posted sky high on a roadside billboard emphasises the out-of-body experience he's currently having. He's bored and alone, and even his modern hotel suite is out of kilter with his large frame to hilarious effect. The fax machine spewing out distant wife Lydia's shelving unit suggestions at 4.20am hints at the impasse his marriage has reached.

Little wonder then that he's drawn to fellow compatriot Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), similarly wandering the corridors while her photographer husband is away on shoots. Bob recognises the ennui in her eyes but there's a spark between them too even though he's twice her age with over two decades of marriage under his belt.

Together they try to make sense of their surroundings. And it is here that the film has been criticised for its flippant regard of the Japanese. Confusion over the pronunciation of 'r's and 'l's and jibes about height are cheap shots. It is more Bill Murray's slapstick falling about that brings out the laughs, and his manic TV presenter is no more wired than our own Graham Norton.

The odd couple's tentative love is marked by what does not take place (though the cinematic atmosphere is spoilt by Coppola having Harris have a meaningless fling with someone else). And Charlotte appears more like Mena Suvari in American Beauty, reawakening an older, jaundiced man to life's possibilities.

Cold Mountain
Certificate 15, directed by Anthony Mingella, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger - on general release

Cold Mountain is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2004. It is gripping, emotionally wrought, beautifully shot and well cast.

Jude Law's determined, battle-scarred Inman turns his back on the American Civil War to traipse the long way home to Aida (Nicole Kidman) the woman he loves but barely knows. Meanwhile, she, and the local women left behind, including Renee Zellweger's gutsy Ruby, are dealing with troubles of their own.

What makes Cold Mountain special is that its spiritual themes of journeying and perseverance, delayed hope, destiny, sacrifice and celebration read like a parable for our times too.

Girl With A Pearl Earring
Certificate 12A, directed by Peter Webber, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson - on general release

This film is also based on a best-selling novel, is gorgeous to look but has little to say. It only hints at a dark truth about masters and servant girls.

The impoverished Griet (Scarlett Johansson, again) finds work at the Vermeer household (the artist is played by a brooding Colin Firth). From cleaning the great artist's studio, she moves to mixing his paints, to eventually being the subject of a portrait.

Peter Webber's film certainly invites viewers to seek out Vermeer's work. But be concerned that this fiction could well become the 'truth'. The real-life subject of the portrait is believed to have been one of Vermeer's daughters.

Kitchen Stories
Certificate PG - at selected cinemas

Kitchen Stories is a small, warm-hearted Scandinavian film similarly set in the domestic sphere that is worth searching out at local independent cinemas.

Here, it is single men who literally come under scrutiny as the subject of a 1950s Norwegian Good Housekeeping/Mass Observation-style research project to identify their movements and so produce the perfect kitchen and household appliances. Surveyors are despatched to observe but not interact.

But being human, imposed barriers soon come down and relationships amusingly and movingly strike up. The gentle rhythm here masks a deep compassion for the minutiae of human interaction, whether within one room or across time and space.

To find out which cinemas are showing these films on general and limited release, visit the Guardian Film website where you can search for a film by its title or, by using their postcode search, find the cinemas near you showing them