Green Dragon (2001): Timothy Linh Bui’s Tale of Vietnam’s Refugees

Sundance Film Fest, January 20, 2001–Revisiting the painful aftermath of the Vietnam War from the perspective of its American-bound refugees, Timothy Linh Bui’s Green Dragon is an honorable companion piece to his brother Tony Bui’s Three Seasons, the first American indie to be entirely shot in and deal with the new Vietnam.

Co-written by Timothy and Tony, who were young boys when the Vietnam ordeal ended, Green Dragon is a personal film that pays tribute to the resilience of the Vietnamese survivors as well as the welcoming American society. The link to Three Seasons, which won three awards at the 1999 Sundance Fest, should help the film secure limited theatrical distribution, particularly in cities with large Vietnamese populations, though diffuse structure would curtail appeal among other groups.

Interweaving three stories that posited the traditional against the modern in a country caught in the chaotic throes of transition, Three Seasons was marked by a sweeping directorial touch and a powerfully poetic vision of the “new” Vietnam. In contrast, as a tale of one refugees camp in the U.S., Green Dragon is set in 1975, against the exodus of 100,000 Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in America after the fall of Saigon. Considered to be the first wave, they represented a new generation caught between old Vietnamese traditions and the new seductive and assimilating American culture.

In its efforts to present a balanced view, Green Dragon employs a noble, almost politically correct perspective in the way it treats its American and Vietnamese characters, refusing to take sides or judge any one. Hence, for every Vietnamese person, there’s an American counterpart, and this duality of character and point-of-view makes the film too scattered, soft, and even sentimental.

Protagonist is a child, Minh (Trung Nguyen), who’s engaged in a daily search for his missing mother, believed to be alive. It’s through his innocent but perceptive eyes that the viewers witness the immigrants’ spirit of hope and rebirth on the one hand, and the tragedy of torn families, false expectations, and conflicted identity, on the other.

Minh befriends Addie (Forest Whitaker), a black American volunteering as a cook at the camp, who immediately takes a liking to him based on their common interest in drawings and Mighty Mouse comic books. Though unable to communication verbally, the two establish an unusually deep bond that’s also enhanced by their common background–death of a father and loss of a mother. The symmetry of their relationship is also expressed in a mural they jointly paint, one that’s meant to bridge culture and history.

Second Vietnamese-American duo is composed of Tai Tran (Don Duong), Minh’s uncle and a former translator for the U.S. Army, and benevolent Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze), who administers the camp. Jim’s brother had died in Vietnam, leaving behind a letter that described his love for the Vietnamese nurse who cared for him when he was wounded.

This quartet is surrounded by at least a dozen characters, each suffering from a different problem, each engaged in a journey that involves daily physical survival, forgetting a turbulent past, and adjusting to a new reality. The large gallery of characters is, in fact, one of the film’s main problems, forcing the director to jump around from one personal story and crisis to another.

Though separate by locale and historical time, Three Seasons and Green Dragon are unified thematically: Both deal with the struggle to find home and meaning, the former in Vietnam, a nation that “won” the war but is now battling to regain its soul, and the latter in America. Stylistically, however, they could not have been more different: Intensely lyrical in its imagery, Three Seasons suffers from a weak narrative, whereas Green Dragon has too much narrative and no distinct visual style.

Nonetheless, taken together, the two movies chronicle a disturbing historical chapter, never before seen in film, and the origins of a new, rapidly growing minority in the U.S.


Pro co: Franchise Pictures
Exec prods: Alison Semenza
Prods: Tony Bui, Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens, Taimika Paxton
Scr: Timothy Linh and Tony Bui
DoP: Kramer Morgenthau
Pro des: Jerry Fleming
Ed: Leo Trombetta
Music: Jeff and Michael Danna
Main cast: Patrick Swayze, Don Duong, Forest Whitaker, Trung Nguyen