After Tony Bui returned to his ancestral Vietnam to make his 1999 prizewinning "Three Seasons," he wrote with his brother Timothy Linh Bui the gentle, bittersweet and deeply personal "Green Dragon," which Timothy adapted for the screen and directed. The brothers, who co-wrote and co-produced "Three Seasons," have stated that the inspiration for their film came from their mother's stories of the hardships she and other Vietnamese refugees endured upon their arrival in America. It's a fitting tribute.
The time is April 1975, and the place is Camp Pendleton, where in 48 hours Marines have assembled a refugee housing area that will temporarily shelter 134,000 people in tents and World War II-era Quonset huts through October of that year. The fall of Saigon is imminent as Tai (Don Duong), a thoughtful, reflective man, arrives at the camp with his little nephew Minh (Trung Hieu Nguyen) and niece Anh (Jennifer Tran). Minh immediately wants to begin searching for his mother, whom his uncle knows may no longer be alive. For the present, he calms the children and promises that their mother will soon be arriving.
The film unfolds from the point of view of the curious, irrepressible Minh, who strikes up an acquaintance with one of the camp's cooks, Addie (Forest Whitaker), a loner yet deeply paternal in regard to the little boy. A gifted artist, Addie has never before shown his sketches to anyone and even draws Minh as Mighty Mouse, having given him some comic books. In time, Addie reveals to the boy the mural he has painted in secret on a storeroom wall and encourages him to add to it. Even though Minh understands not a word of the feelings Addie is expressing, they achieve a bond through the cook's caring manner and shared pleasure in painting together.
The flowering of this touching friendship frames a number of vignettes that capture the feelings of a cross section of refugees. There's Duc (Billinjer Tran), eager to jump into American free enterprise but stunned to find the girl he loved has become the exploited second wife of a man whose first wife hates her. There's a proud man who only wants to return to Vietnam despite his wife's insistence that she and their son will never return. And there's a general, humiliated by defeat and taunted for having left Vietnam before the war is truly over. These and others express their homesickness, their feeling that America has let them down and their fear of their future in an unknown country.
With his fluency in English and calm demeanor, Tai is tapped by Patrick Swayze's Sgt. Jim Lance to be the camp manager. Lance looks every bit the tough, seasoned Marine he is, but he tries to exercise his authority with compassion. Lance and Tai realize that each is a man of goodwill, that each has suffered losses in the war. Lance feels shamed by America's defeat, while Tai endures survivor's guilt. Both strive to work in harmony but, given the circumstances, a strain in their friendship is inevitable. In the meantime, Tai attempts to court one of the general's pretty daughters (Hiep Thi Le).
Timothy Linh Bui has a delicacy of touch that tempers the film's considerable seething anger, frustration and despair as well as the sentimentality that accompanies Addie and Minh's friendship. Bui inspires splendid performances from almost everyone, his principals in particular. Photographed by Kramer Morgenthau with a sensitivity to expressing ever-shifting moods and emotions, "Green Dragon"--which takes its title from a figure in Addie's mural--is a gracious, eloquent film that by its end offers a ray of hope to the refugees able to look ahead and resist living in a past forever lost.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some disturbing situations, nudity and language. Times guidelines: adult themes and situations.
Trung Hieu Nguyen...Minh
Patrick Swayze...Sgt. Lance
Hiep Thi Le...Thuy Hoa
A Franchise Pictures release of a Spirit Dance Entertainment production. Writer-director Timothy Linh Bui. Based on a story by Timothy Linh Bui and Tony Bui. Producers Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens, Tony Bui, Tajamika Paxton. Executive producers Forest Whitaker, Alison Semenza. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. Editor Leo Trombetta. Music Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna. Costumes Ghia Fam. Production designer Jerry Fleming. In English and Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
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