From ‘Hanoi’ to Heartache : Frustrated in getting her film to audiences, a Vietnamese-born documentarian blames the industry’s attitude toward the land of her birth.

<i> Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer</i>

When “From Hollywood to Hanoi” was named Best of the Fest at Telluride in September, 1993, its maker, Tiana, began drumming up publicity for it in hopes of landing a distributor.

The film, widely praised and honored at festivals, is a poignant and revealing documentary about the Vietnamese American actress’s visit to the country she had left as a child more than 20 years earlier.

“From Hollywood to Hanoi” is filled with moments that drive home the terrible toll of war. Yet it also abounds with warmth, humor and hospitality, giving us a sense of what life is like in Vietnam today and leaving us with the feeling that Tiana--as she now calls herself professionally, using an anglicization of her given name, Thi Thanh Nga--has experienced a sense of reconciliation and self-discovery.


Her film opens Friday at the Monica 4-Plex with the premiere of its 35-millimeter print version, just two days before the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

When Tiana, who says she’s in her early 30s, tells you that “the film has become the mission of a lifetime,” you believe her. She has conducted workshops on roots and identity and worked with organizations that support Agent Orange victims and the children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women--children who have been sent to America only to discover that they are just as alienated here as they were in Vietnam.

Tiana’s father, Du Phuoc Long, a former minister of information for the South Vietnamese government who now lives in San Jose, at first opposed her decision to return to the land of her birth and make a film about it, but he is now reconciled to her venture, she says.

(He has written a book, “Shattered Dreams: Vietnamese Gangs in America,” to be published this fall by Northeastern University Press in Boston.)

Tiana experienced a great deal of frustration in trying to get her film to the public.

“Shame on Hollywood,” she said in an interview last year. “They spend billions on movies, and all I need is one investor.”

A year later, Tiana--now based in Los Angeles--still seeks a distributor but is more hopeful now that the film is in 35mm.

“In the last year, I’ve been on the lecture circuit, showing the film in a different city every week,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “In New Orleans, at Tulane, I was able to show it while they were having a major conference on the My Lai massacre. I’ve been distributing the film myself while shooting the sequel. It will be called ‘Big Little Dragon’ and will deal with the reactions of audiences to ‘From Hollywood to Hanoi.’ ”

Tiana deplores the image of the Vietnamese people created by movies such as “Rambo” and seeks to “right the wrongs that Hollywood taught us about Vietnam.”

A year ago, Tiana had already learned, through her own efforts at presenting her film, about the importance of the college circuit and alternative cinema venues. (She has even shown the film to a Vietnamese American gay and lesbian organization.)

“You just can’t throw out a picture like this and let it die. It’s not right,” she said.

“I gave up all hopes of recouping my investment in the film and my investors’ investments too. It was six years’ work, we spent half a million dollars, and not one of us has seen a cent. That’s because all the money that’s come in from the public viewings has gone to the nonprofit Indochina Film Arts Foundation, which I established to foster better understanding between Vietnam and America through films and theater.”

She said the $500,000 allowed her to shoot 100 hours of film throughout America and Vietnam--enough for the 80-minute “From Hollywood to Hanoi,” the sequel and even a nonfiction TV series.

“ ‘A documentary plus Vietnam isn’t box office'--that’s what everybody told me,” she said. But Tiana, who is married to Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, emphasized her film’s positive approach: “These are stories that need to be told; there is a lot of unfinished business in Vietnam we must address. I would like to be a bridge.”

T o that end, Tiana has brought her film to the attention of people from pub lisher Katharine Graham to Tom Cruise, impressed notables from Studs Terkel to George McGovern and won the support of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In February, 1994, she got her film screened for Congress, where it was influential, she believes, in re-establishing trade relations between the United States and Vietnam.

As ecstatic as she is about the lifting of the trade embargo, Tiana is worried that Vietnam will be exploited, leaving “the poor to get poorer.”

“All I’m saying to American investors is ‘Be a good corporate citizen,’ ” she says. “Ho Chi Minh City is Dodge City today: It’s the most exciting place on Earth."*