Return (2023) Film Review |


return vietnam documentary

Many times has Hollywood portrayed the jarring effects of war and the usual PTSD that befalls those who survive. They’re usually heartbreaking depictions of broken men that can’t escape the claws of the personal hell that’s been formed in their minds, and can’t escape their violence-ridden past. In their speeches, there are no winners or losers. Just the emotional scar tissue that will usually arouse them to commit an ultimate act of violence against themselves. It’s not shameful, because sometimes finding peace in death is their only solution.

Coping with that issue is a fundamental need of today’s society. War veterans are still seen as heroes, but at what cost? Should we really observe their glistening medals or should we put everything down, and simply listen to them?

James Markel Sr. is one of those men. A hardhearted senior who can’t find himself progressing because of what he had to do decades prior when he was stationed in Vietnam. His glance is doubtful, almost lost. He needs peace, and the feature documentary Return is a chronicle of that journey in which Markel fights against all of his remaining enemies to be able to live with himself. He does so with the help of his son, also a veteran who’s like a connection  link between his father’s broken mind and the reality of coming back to normal after shooting rifles against people from other countries that were also fighting for a cause.

Markel suffers from PTSD. 45 years ago he left Vietnam as a destroyed soul that would never recover of all the violence, and the disregard the country showed for him after. Even decades in forming a family wouldn’t help him forgive himself and forget the horror he caused. However, after his son proposes a healing process, Markel decides to go forward and try to face his demons. Where? In the place where it all started.

Instead of making a tourism brochure of Vietnam, filmmakers Pete Tolton and Stan Parker decide to take the Markels into the insides of a country that’s still suffering from the effects of war. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the people are welcoming enough to show them entering a society that’s allowed itself to forgive. Return is a documentary about Markel and son connecting with the Vietnamese, in ways that war never permitted. Markel doesn’t get lost in translation because he knows a bit of the language, but it’s the expression of the people that helps him observe beyond a misconception fueled by his own trauma. They’re not the enemies he fought. They’re those who remain after a country’s infrastructure was ravaged by war.

In the film’s closing sequence (there’s one right after it, but personally I prefer to stay with the image of Markel connecting with local folklore, people and culture), both father and son witness a celebration that feels enigmatic and melancholic. Markel is not a young guy, and he’s constantly forced to stop to rest to avoid heatstroke. His legs sometimes give in, and he’s breathless. Vietnam’s scorching heat is almost lethal. However, this reunion is much more important than anything, and his elevates spirit is much stronger than what his body says he can or cannot do. He dances to the tune of his soul finding the light. Markel has found joy, and remains humble at the sight of peace and love.

Return is an essential documentary.

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Federico Furzan

Film critic. Lover of all things horror. Member of the OFCS. RT Approved Critic.

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