Adapted from the novel by Marguerite Duras, set in French Indochina in 1931, there are a number of interesting angles that filmmaker Rithy Panh can take on the subject of French colonialism in the region, but despite the presence of a strong cast, headed up by Isabelle Huppert, he doesn't manage to make the most of the material in this film version of Un barrage contre le Pacifique.
The most obvious position to take would be the corruption of the French authorities in the region and the abuse of the natives, whose land has been parcelled out in plots to colonials who sometimes graciously allow them to keep their huts on the land that they work for their foreign masters. This is certainly covered to a large extent in the story of one mother (Huppert), a widow living on one such estate with two of her children, who has however been left with the raw end of the deal, allotted low-lying coastal plots of land. Too close to the ocean, the land is regularly flooded, destroying the rice fields that have been worked on so hard, so she comes up with an idea of building a wooden sea-wall to keep the relentless surge of the Pacific out. All of which is a strong enough metaphor for the position of the French in Indochina, but really, other than the inevitable mistreatment of the natives, there's nothing much more to that side of the story than that.
The other way to approach the state of tension between the natives and the colonists is through an uneasy romantic relationship, in the manner of Claire Denis's Chocolat or indeed Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Lover, adapted also from a Duras novel set in Indochina during the same period. The Sea Wall certainly hints at this with the rather sleazy romantic interest shown to Huppert's 16 year-old daughter Suzanne by a wealthy Asian businessman who has interest in the land himself for the more profitable growth of pepper plants. The situation is given a further twist not only with the mother's willingness to exploit her children for her own ends, but with the suggested unnatural closeness that exists also between Suzanne and her 19 year-old brother Joseph, but again very little is made of the potential here to make this situation speak on any other level or even create the necessary dramatic tension through it. Rather the whole romantic angle comes across as rather tepid, failing to generate the required conflict that the uneasy liaisons should inspire.
What remains is a fairly straightforward and presumably literal handling of the original material with reasonably fine cinematography and period production design that makes the most of the location within only a few limited settings (the rice fields, the family house, the colonialist's bar). The DVD transfer certainly presents the cinematic qualities of the locations well, the original mainly French soundtrack available in a 2.0 and a 5.1 mix. Other than a stills gallery and trailer, the only relevant extra feature is a brief interview with the director Rithy Panh and Isabelle Huppert, which is nonetheless quite informative.