Green Dragon
review by Gregory Avery, 28 June 2002

Green Dragon opens with a young Vietnamese boy waking up with a start to find himself in a strange place, a room with people sleeping on the floor all about him. The boy then carefully steps over the bodies of the sleeping people, like a kid carefully trying not to step on the cracks in a sidewalk, in order to find out where he is. It turns out to be Camp Pendleton, in California, where he is among the first group of refugees to be evacuated from Vietnam when the U.S. military began to withdraw from that country in April, 1975, shortly after which the North Vietnamese forces would sweep down and engulf Saigon and the rest of the South.

Unfortunately, Timothy Linh Bui, who wrote and directed Green Dragon, has taken a potentially rich dramatic subject -- refugees who watch, from a distance, the country they knew gradually disappear bit by bit, while housed by U.S. soldiers whom they had counted on to prevent such a fate -- and has reduced everything to the same note of quiet anguish and grief. (The director's brother, Tony Bui, did pretty much the same thing with the 1999 film, Three Seasons.) The film seems populated by stock characters and stock situations. The young boy, Minh (Trung Nguyen), and his sister, Anh (Jennifer Tran), are wide-eyed, emotionally distant waifs who are waiting for their mother to catch up and rejoin them. Their uncle, Tai (Don Duong, who has an expressively pensive, centered quality to his face and gestures), is called upon to act as "camp manager" by the C.O. (Patrick Swayze, thick-necked and rather distant, as well), but his duties, beyond quietly listening to people, are somewhat ill-defined. Along with his conciliatory, hands-across-the-water friendship with the C.O., Minh also becomes friends with a lonely camp cook (Forest Whitaker), and helps the cook paint a mural on a blank wall in the mess-hall kitchen.  The intentions are entirely honorable, but the situation of an older man repeatedly taking a young boy into a back room has such connotations that the filmmakers may have wanted to have given it some second-thought before staging things this way.

Other parts of the film, though, are simplistic, even nave. When the refugees begin to make clear that they don't want to leave the camp, Tai is given a lift into town and back, after which he describes to the other Vietnamese what they have not yet been able to see -- many privately-owned cars, vast supermarkets, and jobs that pay two dollars and ten cents an hour, guaranteed minimum wage. If the employers HAVE to pay them at least that much, Tai says, "we can make it. (If there are jobs available, and employers who don't try to take advantage of them, and affordable housing that is in better condition than a dog run.) Hiep Thi Le, who played the beleaguered heroine of Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, looks like she may inject some well-needed feistiness into the film when she first appears as a woman who angrily demands why her repeated requests for baby food for her infant have not been honored, but even she, after a while, becomes subsumed by the overall solicitous tone. The filmmakers have stated that they wanted to re-evoke a certain time and place where people from another shore had to make a new beginning. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem too respectful towards their subject to fully bring it to life. Time and place are what the film needs more of in order to make it become anything more than well-intentioned.

Directed by:
Timothy Linh Bui

Starring:
Don Duong
Patrick Swayze
Hiep Thi Le
Trung Nguyen
Jennifer Tran
Forest Whitaker

Written by:
Timothy Linh Bui
Tony Bui.

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be in appropriate
for children under 13.

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