History Vs. Memory

Little Saigons beginnings

Wartime politics are mostly backdrop in Timothy Linh Bui's new film, Green Dragon, which tells the story of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees who arrived at Camp Pendleton as Saigon was about to fall in April 1975.

"I'm not political," confesses the indie filmmaker, a Vietnamese-American who belongs to a generation that has basically little or no firsthand experience of the war. Bui was just five when he arrived at an Arizona resettlement camp, and having visited his homeland, he reminds Americans that "Vietnam is a country, not a war." "Vietnam has moved on," he says.

As a result, Green Dragon, which opens the 2001 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival on Thursday, May 17, does not dwell on the Byzantine Saigon politics that were transplanted to America in the aftermath of the war nor the recriminations that circulated in the camps. It's the human relationships that Bui's film highlights, especially the close bond that develops between Addie (veteran actor Forest Whitaker) and five-year-old Minh Pham (Trung Nugyen). Addie, a painter and a volunteer cook at the camp, becomes Minh's mentor, encouraging the kid to paint while sketching the boy. Bui's attention to his young character embodies his film's message: it's the future that matters, not the past.

Don't confuse Timothy Linh Bui with younger brother Tony, who directed the first Vietnam-USA joint production, Three Seasons. The brothers co-wrote the screenplays for Three Seasons and Green Dragon, and both films are cinematic attempts to trace their roots.

Some 50,000 refugees camped out on the desertlike expanse of Camp Pendleton in the mid-1970s. They stayed there for up to six months before being "sponsored out" by American families; most eventually settled in Westminster's Little Saigon. As Timothy Bui put it, there would be no Little Saigon without Camp Pendleton.

Named after the mythical animal depicted on a mural painted by Addie at the camp, Green Dragon was shot entirely on the base, with tents and remodeled Quonset huts. The film's star is Don Duong (pronounced Zuong), who was also the lead in Three Seasons. In Dragon, Duong plays Tai Tran, who goes from U.S. Army translator to resettlement-camp manager under Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze). Duong is a Vietnamese national who pulls off the role despite the fact that he learned English just last year in a two-month crash course.

Tran falls in love with Thuy Hoa (Hiep Thi Le of Bugis Streetand Heaven and Earth fame), a diminutive woman with a Cheshire-cat grin who lashes out at Lance after her father commits suicide. It's one of the film's few political scenes, Hoa blaming Lance (and, by extension, the U.S.) for "abandoning" South Vietnam. Lance is a stand-in for the U.S. war effort, and like the nation, he has his own demons: he successfully urged his younger brother to enlist, only to realize after his death that his sibling didn't want to go. Now he hopes to make amends by painlessly resettling the refugees.

After Lance takes Tran on a supermarket-shopping trip outside the camp, the refugee comes back wild-eyed. He tells his fellow countrymen he has seen the future: "rows and rows" of neatly arranged houses (Irvine?) and the cornucopia of groceries available in the supermarket. Don't be afraid of what's outside, he counsels them. But Bui doesn't show the supermarket trip itself because, he says, he wanted to capture the reaction of the other refugees to the tale. It's a vision of America that sustained those who built Little Saigon. Having lost their homeland, they conjured up an America full of opportunity.

Two other festival offerings have Orange County ties. In Rod Pulido's The Flip Side, UC Irvine senior Verwin Gatpandan plays college-kid Darius, who is obsessed with his Filipino roots, walks around wrapped in a loincloth, and speaks Tagalog at the dinner table. His father, Mr. Delacruz (played by Abe Pagtama), thinks that Kababayan, the campus organization Darius has joined, is a "crazy radical" group for lobbying the campus administration to provide Tagalog classes. Darius' sister, Marivic (Ronalee Par), just wants a nose job so she can look white. Meanwhile, younger brother David (Jose Saenz) is an NBA fanatic who hangs from railings in an effort to stretch himself. David, who disdains his Filipino past, is, according to Marivic, a "nigger wannabe" (or "African-American wannabe," as the PC Darius corrects his sister). Add Pulido's real mother, Ester, as the teens' mother and grandfather Lolo (Peping Baclig), a Bataan Death March survivor, and you have the ingredients for a hilarious comedy. Pulido shot the entire film in 16 mm black-and-white to indict an entertainment culture that relegates Asians to virtual invisibility.

UCI film studies professor Fatimah Tobing Rony's short film Everything In Between explores the relationship between Michael (Burt Bulos), who is gay, and the straight Rosa (Sierra Knolle), a fashion designer who adores the late Hollywood star Anna May Wong. It's set in the flashy confines of queer Asian dance clubs in Los Angeles, with scenes reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's frenetic pace.

Green Dragon and The Flip Side screen at the Director's Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 680-3700. www.vconline.org. Green Dragon: Thurs., May 17, 7:30 p.m.; The Flip Side: May 19, 7 p.m. everything in between screens at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. Mccadden Place, Los Angeles. May 21, 8 p.m. $6.50-$8.50 per screening; $25-$50 for the entire festival; $30-$100 for opening-night gala (includesGreen Dragon screening); Timothy Linh Bui is interviewed by Daniel C. Tsang on Subversity. KUCI FM 88.9 and www.kuci.org. Tues., 4 p.m.

 
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