February 13, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Green Dragon is director Timothy Linh Bui’s sympathetic look at the plight of Vietnamese expatriots in an American refugee camp at the end of the Vietnam War. The film is an ambitious affair, pulling in a number of disparate narratives and attempting to create something cohesive out of these many threads. Ironically, however, the film works best when its many parts remain distinct: a series of intriguing character vignettes rather than the grand epic drama which Bui is reaching for.

For most of the film’s first half, this is the case. The opening sequences capture the confusion and chaos of arriving at the camp, following many different characters and fractured plotlines, not caring if a particular path leads to a dead end; in that case, the film simply reverses and follows someone else. A man named Tai (Don Duong) looking over his young niece and nephew while anxiously (and somewhat guiltily) waiting for their mother to arrive in America. A young country girl in a marriage of convenience with an older man who helped her escape from Vietnam. A caring chef (Forest Whitaker) trying his best to cheer up Tai’s despondent nephew Minh. And a seemingly apathetic American soldier (Patrick Swayze) desperately overseeing this whole chaotic mess. These threads, and many more, are woven expertly through the film’s first half without ever really coming together.

The characters’ lives overlap and occasionally cross, but for the most part Bui doesn’t seek to impose any coherent theme or narrative onto his movie’s lack of structure. Bui (who also co-wrote the screenplay) simply portrays with raw honesty and emotion the lives of his characters, drawing the audience in with the promise of (for once) a war movie that doesn’t preach or try to teach grand morals about life and death.

Unfortunately, Green Dragon’s second half doesn’t fare nearly as well. The film does expertly, finally, draw its many different plots together, connecting characters and drawing out relationships that had previously been only barely suggested. One thing that Bui accomplishes beautifully is depicting the fluidity of familial boundaries and friendships within the camp, as families absorb new members even while losing old ones. And, as in the first half, the emotional intensity of the acting propels the story along, with everyone contributing deep, lovely performances. Where the film falls apart, though, is with an overwrought sentimentality that seeps into the film as it picks up steam. Over-romanticizing the American treatment of Vietnamese refugees and resorting to cliched Hollywood tropes to tug on heartstrings, the film loses a lot of the genuine emotional weight it had been building up.

Throughout the film’s second half, Bui continues to craft some beautifully affecting moments and ideas, but his vision is compromised by the nagging suspicion that he is drastically over-reaching here. When he succeeds, he hits upon some great tension and emotion, but when he fails, Green Dragon comes across as insincere and cheesy flag-waving. Still, Bui’s epic is notable for looking at the Vietnam era from a much different angle that has traditionally been taken by Hollywood through the years — for once, concentrating on the Vietnamese side of things, in the war’s dismal aftermath. At its best, it’s a poignant and touching look at the lives of a society of outcasts. Flawed, certainly, but still very well-made and compelling.

Archived article by Ed Howard