Malle splits his time between two primary threads. Dinh (Ho Nguyen) has just arrived in America, and quickly gets a job with Wally (Donald Moffat), who runs one of the fishing companies in Alamo Bay most sympathetic to the Vietnamese. Shang (Harris) is a war vet, and unsurprisingly feels the opposite. With so many low-income workers around, his business begins to suffer as competition rises, and he struggles to make payments on his boat. He prefers to spend time with Wally's daughter Glory (Madigan) rather than staying at home with his wife (Cynthia Carle) and kids, but his distrust of the refugees is causing them to drift apart. With each passing day, Shang's feeling that it's him or the them builds, pushing him deeper into a state of rage, and his friends in town do nothing to discourage him.
Malle uses American symbolism to reinforce the way the Vietnamese are happy to live into the stereotypical portrait of American life: the kids play baseball, Christian preachers lead families in grace before a meal, and Dinh even buys a cowboy hat. All he wants is a boat of his own, as per the American dream. Shang, of course, sees all of this as an intrusion. His dislike of the Vietnamese curdles in him until every problem in his life is their fault, from poor business to his crumbling affair with Glory. When she climbs into a truck with Dinh for a ride across town, he can't see it as her walking away from him, but Dinh intruding on his space. Shang is also blind to the way the townspeople's disapproval of his blatant affair allows Glory to sympathize with the viewpoints of the Vietnamese, viewed as intrusive or destructive as a so-called homewrecker.
Shang's viewpoint, unfortunately, is shared by most of the Alamo Bay community, where hypocrisy runs deep. One man complains that cheap labor is killing their businesses, without any consideration that their decision to pay the Vietnamese second-class rates in the first place is causing his own problems. Another man, brought in for the sole purpose of scaring away the immigrant community, suggests that they follow Martin Luther King Jr.'s lead without a hint of irony. In a sentiment that will be all-too-familiar to 21st century women, a cop car shoos away a truck full of rowdy young men taunting some beautiful Vietnamese women, only to scold them for not running home and "stirring up trouble" simply by being in public. The town is all too ready to pick sides without examining their own prejudice, worrying that the Vietnamese will blow up the harbor only minutes before a group of white men gleefully suggest slitting Dinh's throat in the middle of a bar simply for daring to talk to one of them. It'd be fair to say the conflict here is non-ambiguous, even to the point that it's probably reductive, but Malle's depiction of it is accurate to beliefs that are unfortunately still held today that the film still touches a nerve.
Although Malle and screenwriter Alice Arlen are clear in their message, the film does fumble a few times, and in exactly the areas the film is meant to critique. Madigan and Harris are great in the movie, but it seems somewhat ironic that Ho Nguyen's character arc gets shortchanged in favor of them. Dinh wants to live the American dream, but is forced into a violent confrontation with Shang. Although Glory is not present for much of it, their showdown concludes with her character and her feelings on the confrontation, while Dinh is shuffled off to the side, more of a victim in the conflict than a key participant. The sequence itself is also a bit weak, resorting to a shootout rather than a more dramatic and personal confrontation. Nguyen's range as an actor is somewhat limited, and there are a couple of regrettable moments, including his imitation of townsfolk destroying his homemade boat during the city hall scene.
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