In the period surrounding the fall of Saigon in 1975, American soldiers routed waves of Vietnamese refugees into orientation camps. There, fledgling immigrants poised on an uneasy border, unsure if they could, should, or would settle in the homeland of their dubious "protector." For the film Green Dragon, writer-director Timothy Linh Bui developed the story with brother Tony, who previously helmed the acclaimed Three Seasons (the first American production granted permission to shoot entirely in Vietnam). Green Dragon is shot entirely on location at Camp Pendelton, where the film is set. Despite this gesture of verisimilitude, Green Dragon holds its audience at an arm's length of narrative condescension.
The schematic story frames the immigrant experience from multiple viewpoints. A child named Minh (and his sister) search the camp for a mother who may never arrive. Their uncle and guardian Tai (Don Duong) becomes a hesitant camp manager, a servant of two masters. His boss, Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze), rules the roost with sympathetic efficiency. The second wife of one immigrant longs for release from a husband who forces himself on her, while socially favoring his first wife. A cook named Addie (Forest Whitaker) befriends Minh and teaches him art. And so on.
But this worthy premise needs a more incisive, neo-realist treatment, not the treacly character soap opera the Buis offer here, as they force emotion and declare dramatic points. Though admirably sympathetic to all sides, the Bui brothers fail even on a basic dramatic level, with a fragmented and limp narrative. The American characters have contrived secret motivations for their sensitive stances, while the intellectually rich Vietnamese characters are sidelined to indulge the simplistic, emotional ones, especially the pivotal, Mighty Mouse-loving child. The Buis make their choice and stick with it.
Don Duong stands out (warning: his thick-accented English may test you in his confrontations with Swayze), but any movie that can make Forest Whitaker boring has a screw loose somewhere. For those unwilling to read a book (or even watch a documentary), the overtly sentimental Green Dragon will suffice, but others may take a weekend pass.