“Green Dragon” is the kind of film that doesn’t come along very often because, simply put, not many people who are capable of making such films are working in the film industry, or has the opportunity to do so. “Green Dragon” tells the tale of Vietnamese refugees who arrive in America as the Vietnam War is on the verge of concluding and Saigon is ready to fall. It is the kind of tale that only people who has lived through the ordeal can talk about, write about, and direct.
I won’t pretend to know a lot about the Vietnamese experience, since I am myself not Vietnamese. I also don’t have extensive knowledge about Vietnamese filmmakers, but a little research reveals that “Green Dragon” is written and directed by the brotherly team of Timothy and Tony Bui, whose only previous film credit is the American-in-Vietnam film “Three Seasons.” “Seasons” was a darling of film festivals everywhere in 1999, but I have not had the privilege of seeing. (Although I plan to rectify that soon.)
I should say that I am quite surprised by how good “Green Dragon” is, mostly because I’ve seen so many films about refugees and immigrants in America, and I have seen enough pitfalls inherent in such a project that I have become leery of such films. “Green Dragon” takes place almost exclusively at the refugee camp where Tai (Don Duong) and the other Vietnamese are housed until sponsors can be found for them. Once sponsors are found, the refugees are sent to live with them and thus assimilated into mainstream America. Or at least that’s the plan. But like the war itself, nothing works out the way it’s supposed to.
The era is 1975, and the story takes place over the course of some months. The film tells multiple tales at once, weaving multiple running storylines, all the while keeping Tai and Minh, a boy who has lost his parents, as the centerpieces of everything. It is through Tai and Minh that we see the world, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and price of escape. Tai is an adult, and gives voice to the wealth of varied emotions swirling within the camp; Minh represents confusion and innocence, unaware of all the things that drive adults to wage war.
At a little under 2 hours, the film has time to build up its many characters, and by the time the movie ends, we feel as if we know them all intimately. Even those characters that appear briefly seem familiar to us, mostly because the Buis have written a screenplay that is so intimate and timeless in its themes of family, loss, and fear, that we can’t help but feel what they feel, and understand them regardless of culture differences.
“Green Dragon” also avoids another pitfall by not providing a sugarcoated coda at the end of the film. Like life, not everyone we meet in “Green Dragon” is destined for a happy ending. Even those who seem on their way to a decent future encounters doubt because of their experiences. For better or worst, or somewhere in-between, their lives have been drastically altered, and being uprooted from their home is just one small factor.
Of the many characters, some of the more notable ones are: a soldier who wants to return to Vietnam despite the Communist triumph; a woman who becomes so used to the camp that leaving becomes an unapproachable nightmare; a General who has lost everything, and finds himself the object of hatred by those who once fought underneath him; an entrepreneur who has an idea about building something called “Little Saigon”; and the entrepreneur’s lost love, a young woman who is now the mistress of an older man. In so many categories, “Green Dragon” hits everything it aims for, and that’s an incredible achievement.
On a little bit of curiosity, “Green Dragon” has a rather deceptive publicity campaign behind it, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The Japanese internment movie “Come See the Paradise”, about Japanese Americans held in internment camps during WWII, had Caucasian actor Dennis Quaid in a supporting role, but it’s Quaid who gets top billing. The trick is to draw in Joe Smith out there in Middle America with the promise of a familiar (white) face, and then hit them with a movie so good and holds such universal appeal that it’ll make them forget they were tricked in in the first place. “Green Dragon” does that, and in this case, a little deception is a good thing.
Timothy Linh Bui (director) / Timothy Linh Bui, Tony Bui (screenplay)
CAST: Patrick Swayze …. Jim Lance
Forest Whitaker …. Addie
Don Duong …. Tai
Hiep Thi Le …. Thuy Hoa
Billinjer C. Tran …. Duc