Boat People

The film is shown through the point of view of a Japanese photojournalist named Shiomi Akutagawa (Lam). Three years after covering Danang during the communist takeover, Akutagawa is invited back to Vietnam to report on life after the war. He is guided by a government minder to a New Economic Zone near Danang and is shown a group of schoolchildren happily playing, singing songs praising Ho Chi Minh.

The scene that he sees is actually staged to deceive the foreign press. In Danang, he witnesses a fire and is beaten by the police for taking photos without permission. He also sees the police beating up a “reactionary”. Later he sees a family being forced to leave the city to a New Economic Zone and wonders why they would not want to go there, recalling the happy children that he saw.

In the city, he meets Cam Nuong (Ma) and her family. Her mother secretly works as a prostitute to raise her children. She has two younger brothers, the older one, Nhac, is a street-smart boy who is conversant in American slang, while the younger boy, Lang, was fathered by a Korean that her mother serviced. From Cam Nuong, Akutagawa learns the grisly details of life under communism in Danang, including children searching for valuables in freshly executed corpses in the “chicken farm”. One day, Nhac finds an unexploded ordnance while scavenging in the garbage and is killed.

At the “chicken farm”, Akutagawa meets To Minh (Lau), a young man who was just released from the New Economic Zone. After To Minh attempts to rob Akutagawa’s camera, he is tried and re-sent to the New Economic Zone. Akutagawa uses his connections with an official to follow him there. At the New Economic Zone, he witnesses the inmates being mistreated. He returns to the location where the smiling children were singing for him earlier, and finds to his horror them sleeping unclothed in overcrowded barracks.

Meanwhile, To Minh has a plan to escape the country with a friend named Thanh. However, while on duty dismantling landmines one day, Thanh is blown up. To Minh gets on the boat to flee the country alone, but he is set up. The Coast Guard is waiting for them and shoots indiscriminately into the boat, killing all on board then taking all the valuables.

Cam Nuong’s mother is arrested for prostitution and forced to confess publicly. She commits suicide by impaling herself with a hook. Akutagawa decides to sell his camera to help Cam Nuong and her brother leave the country. On the night of the ship’s departure, Akutagawa helps them by carrying a container of diesel. However, they are discovered and he is shot at. The diesel container blows up, burning Akutagawa to death. The film ends with Cam Nuong and her brother safely on the boat, looking forward to a new life at a freer place.