"From Hollywood to Hanoi," an extraordinarily moving and engrossing documentary, covers lots of terrain, emotional as well as cultural and geographical, as a beautiful young actress who calls herself Tiana returns to her native country for the first time in more than 20 years. (Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.)
For Tiana, an Anglicization of Thi Thanh Nga, the daughter of a former minister of information for the South Vietnamese government, the return is a journey of self-discovery, an attempt to reconcile her American identity with her cultural roots. Yet from the moment of her arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, her own odyssey takes on an epic dimension as she seizes her unique opportunity to use her film as an instrument of reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States.
Thanks to the passion, dedication and determination of Tiana and her skilled and selfless crew, "From Hollywood to Hanoi" accomplishes its goals. One of its strengths and charms is that it never loses its highly personal quality--the sense that it starts out like a home movie/travelogue for the folks back home, complete with delightfully corny asides aimed at her relatives by Tiana, who narrates and appears in front of the camera.
But the country she is visiting is, after all, Vietnam and she is a U.S. citizen; Ho Chi Minh City may be a bustling metropolis, once again becoming a tourist mecca, but in seeking out her relatives she encounters immediately the enormous toll exacted by the war. She has a joyous "hen party" reunion with her pretty actress cousins, one of whom is considered "the Elizabeth Taylor of Vietnam." But there are also meetings with an elderly aunt--so impoverished she couldn't even afford to buy stamps to try to write for help from her relatives in America--and an elderly uncle--minister of defense for South Vietnam and also a former senator whom Tiana believed to be dead but who survived 13 years in North Vietnamese "re-education" camps. Understandably, he is as bitter about the communist North Vietnamese victors as is Tiana's own father.
Moving beyond family reunions, Tiana visits a hospital where victims of Agent Orange are treated; talks to a group of Vietnamese fathered by American soldiers, whose mixed ancestry has made life hard for them in Vietnamese society and who dream of being reclaimed and taken to America by the fathers they never knew, and listens to the haunted survivors of the My Lai Massacre.
As an indomitable charmer and the member of a large, once-prominent family, Tiana proceeds to Hanoi, arriving in the midst of the immense, emotion-charged celebration of the centennial of the birth of Ho Chi Minh. She manages to meet with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, former commander of the victorious North Vietnamese army, premier Pham Van Dong and senior Politburo adviser Le Duc Tho, who explains why he refused to accept the Nobel Prize in 1975 with Henry Kissinger--and expresses sorrow upon learning that Humphrey Bogart is no longer alive. Giap's wife addresses American mothers, speaking of a common bond of loss and grief.
Le Duc Tho's juxtaposed comments on peace and an American movie icon cut right to the heart of "From Hollywood to Hanoi," which for all its spirit of reconciliation is also a sharp commentary on the potency of American pop culture. Tiana is highly critical of the way, particularly through movies, the Vietnamese people have been depicted before and after the war in Southeast Asia. Indeed, Tiana's clips from her own roles in cheap American action movies could alone explain her need to return to Vietnam to try to forge a new identity.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: Although it is a serious film for adult audiences, it is also suitable for teen-agers .
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'From Hollywood to Hanoi'
An Indochina Film Arts Foundation presentation. Writer-producer-director Tiana Thi Thanh Nga. Executive producer Oliver Stone. Cinematographers Michael Dodds, Bruce Dorfman, Jamie Maxtone-Graham. Supervising editor Pam Wise. Editor Roger Schulte. Story supervisor/post-production associate David Shadrack Smith. Script continuity/post-production assistant Jennifer Thompson. Music Trinh Cong Son, Allan Gus. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741.