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Green Dragon

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Green Dragon

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Kieu Chinh
Director: Timothy Linh Bui
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 111 Minutes
Release Date: May 2002
Genre: Foreign

*Also starring: Kathleen Luong, Don Duong, Billinjer Tran

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

I remember a heart-wrenching picture taken by a war correspondent in 1945, something that won a Pulitzer or, if not, should have. The shot showed the last American chopper out of Saigon which seems to have lifted off a minute or so before the victorious Communist forces smashed the gates of the American Embassy to wrap up the war, our country's first defeat ever. A handful of Vietnamese seemed to be hanging on to the ladder after the machine got airborne, looking like stunt men out of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. We rescued of the people loyal to the American forces, in this case those who were working in the U.S. Embassy. But what happened to them later, and what happened to the tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who escaped, leaving everything behind, often including their parents or siblings? Now we have the answer in what I believe is the first motion picture to deal with the ways American ingenuity made invention out of the Vietnam necessity. Turns out that the principal place to relocate the Vietnamese refugees was Camp Pendleton in California, just one example of the desert-like areas used to pitch tents and Quonset huts to keep these folks until American sponsors could be found to give them housing. One of the ironic points made by Timothy Linh Bui's film–which takes off like a docu-drama but gradually and patiently builds steam to become a melodramatic commentary on the evils of war–is that lots of these people pitched in rudimentary tents, lining up for fried fish (which they didn't go for) and fried chicken (better), were actually afraid of leaving the camp and going out into the vast American arena under the sponsorship of kind families who more or less adopted them. The devil they knew was better than the devil they didn't.

But `Green Dragon' is not primarily a puff piece for this country's humanitarianism. In fact as more than one resident points out, America abandoned its friends in Vietnam (which recalls the arguments made by Cubans living in Florida that President Kennedy abandoned them at the Bay of Pigs invasion by withdrawing the promised air support). Whether the U.S. could have won the war, presumably by escalating the violence, is not the subject of the picture. Instead Bui, employing a story that he co-wrote with his brother Tony, looks at life in the refugee camp from the point of view of the Vietnamese. This in itself makes the project laudatory.

There is much here to compare with Tony Bui's more dramatic, opened-up film, `Three Seasons,' also a multi-character tale, that one taking place in today's Saigon where among the stories to be told are those of a poor boy trying to survive in the streets, a bicycle-taxi driver who falls in love with a hooker, and an American soldier (played by Harvey Keitel) who returns to Saigon to look for his daughter and redeem himself for his past. One of the stories in `Green Dragon' is of the friendship between a solitary volunteer cook, Addie (Forest Whitaker), who was injured in the war, and a ten-year-old boy who had to leave Vietnam without his mother. The boy, understandably anxious and sad although hopeful of an eventual reunion with his `mere,' is a fan of Mighty Mouse comic books and through that medium, Addie gets to connect with the kid (Trung Nguyen), teaching him to paint a canvas. What the little boy (chosen from among 500 non-professionals who tried out for the role) does not know is that his bi-lingual uncle Tai (Don Duong), who is the camp manager appointed by the ruling Staff Sergeant Lance (Patrick Swayze), was compelled to leave the lad's mom in Vietnam because there were not enough seats on the aircraft out of the country. The guilt felt by Tai is shared by Lance, who encouraged his brother to sign up for duty in the ‘nam only to hear of the young man's death in battle shortly thereafter.

In another story, a married woman (Hiep Thi Le) meets up with her first love (Billinjer Tran), but her reunion is a bitter one because of a conflict that could easily have become a template for soap-opera melodrama.

There are plenty of war movies to choose from. `Windtalkers' is in town now, featured as a summer movie. But few develop the more mundane tales, dramatic in their own way, about the day-to-day dealings with the by-products of these wars. (Mark Jonathan Harris's `Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kinder transport,' as one example, takes us into a hitherto unexplored area: the efforts to place Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia out of harm's way during the early stages of World War II by putting them into British homes.) While `Green Dragon' is not as absorbing as Tony Bui's `Three Seasons'–its location completely within Camp Pendleton does not give photographer Kramer Morgenthau the exotic scenery to explore on location in a teeming city like Saigon–Timothy Linh Bui's effort is a poignant, worthwhile, sincere look at how America wrested a few small victories out of its major defeat.

Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten

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