Political Film Society - Newsletter #133 - May 10, 2002

May 10, 2002


Green Dragon
Refugees generally leave a country in turmoil without a clear idea of what comes next other than a prolongation of their lives. In Green Dragon, the experience of some 134,000 Vietnamese refugees is condensed into short cuts of a few characters with myriad adjustment problems faced at the principal location of temporary housing, Camp Pendleton, where the film was actually shot. As the opening credits roll, we see film footage of the chaos of South Vietnam's last days, then the means of transportation to America, arrival and processing of Vietnamese refugees, and the temporary quarters, largely Quonset huts and tents that were prepared for the refugees in two days. Throughout the film, radio broadcasts provide news updates until the People's Army of Vietnam triumphantly marches unopposed into Saigon on April 30, 1975. Released in Los Angeles one day after the twenty-seventh anniversary of that event, the film's tagline is "A story from a war that had been forgotten." The two principal characters are Marine Sergeant Jim Lance (played by Patrick Swayze) and refugee Tai Tran (played by Don Duong), whom Lance appoints as camp manager because one day he demonstrates a command of English in asking how he could be of help, clearly manifesting survivor's guilt. Lance's assignment is to accommodate the refugees until they have sponsors. (Indeed, the camp opened in April 1975 and closed in October that year.) Lance asks Tai to try to keep order in the camp by attending to the needs of the refugees and by preventing disorder, but of course the task is more than anyone can handle, since more than 10,000 refugees are cramped into a single location. For some refugees, problems that they had in Vietnam are compounded, such as a husband who has two wives. Wife #1 displays intense emotional outbursts, believing that she has lost her "womanhood," though wife #2 in due course slaps her husband when she learns that he will abandon her, neither apparently realizing that no American would ever agree to sponsor a man and his two wives. A few refugees inevitably insist on returning home, so they have to be segregated from the general population, though one man wants to drag his family along despite their wishes to the contrary. Many refugees are sad that close relatives have been left behind. Tai's niece and nephew keep looking for their mother, but in time his nephew, adorable five-year-old Minh (played by Trung Hieu Nguyen), becomes amazed by the art work of African American Addie (played by Forest Whitaker), a camp volunteer cook. The bonding, based on body language and common appreciation for the comic character Mighty Mouse, appears perhaps as a paradigm for why Americans and Vietnamese have taken such a liking for each other in contemporary America. At the center of Addie's secret mural, on which he encourages Minh to use a paintbrush and possibly launch a career, is a green dragon, which supplies the film's title.

Political discussions among the refugees tend to be accusatory, contentious, and futile; those most disappointed with the plight of their country identify Americans as having betrayed the people of Vietnam, yet Sergeant Lance tries to reassure them to the contrary while holding back his obvious guilt that events turned out so badly for the United States. Yet no guilt is more deep than a Vietnamese general, who ultimately commits suicide rather than face an ignominious future. Indeed, most refugees are afraid of their future life in America. One enterprising young man, Duc (played by Billinjer Tran), has no problem organizing business right in the camp, as he doubtless did in Saigon, and he exchanges gold possessed by refugees for various items brought into the camp by Addie, who later dies. When Duc is sponsored by someone in Kansas, he leaves with a smile on his face, determined to build a Little Saigon of shops and homes (which is due course transformed the nearby town of Westminster). But unknown sponsors do not excite everyone. One night, a woman who had received word that she had been sponsored, refuses to leave her friends and the photos of her two sons, so she is forcibly removed by military police while screaming. The obvious brutality frightens refugees so much that Tai feels no alternative but to resign, having felt disgraced in his role and humiliated that he was not consulted beforehand. Though sympathetic to Vietnamese but ignorant of their cultural sensitivities, Lance does not realize that betrayal (of country, of family, and by the Americans) is the strongest emotion dominating the camp, whose residents are now in fear that they will be treated as harshly by Americans as by the MPs. But Lance then brings peace to the camp in a surprise ending: He takes Tai outside the camp to see how Americans live. When Tai returns, he reports that the roads of full of Cadillacs, the houses are beautiful and spacious, and the stores are big and filled with goodies, some of which he brings back in a paper sack. Nominated for last year's Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Green Dragon was written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui, with a short segment directed by his brother Tony Bui (who directed Three Seasons). Timothy arrived as a refugee at Fort Chaffey, Arkansas, at about the same age as Minh in the film, and the character provides an opportunity for some autobiographical reflections. In addition to the fictional stories about refugees, which were constructed from the experiences that Timothy's mother relayed to him about real persons, the film provides music, dance, subtitled Vietnamese dialog, and an opportunity to view Vietnamese customs regarding many aspects of everyday living. The pace is so rapid that there is little time to reflect during the film on the overall message. What dawns on a filmviewer later is that the 1.5 million Vietnamese now in the United States are a proud, energetic, enterprising, sensitive, smiling people who have brought more good to America than America ever brought to Vietnam. For the film's role in bringing to light the pathos of the Vietnamese refugee experience, the Political Film Society has nominated Green Dragon for an award as best film exposé of 2002. MH