The past isn't even close to being past in Daughter From Danang, and what's more, it's a foreign country. A Sundance prizewinner included in the 2002 New Directors/New Films, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's documentary follows a Vietnamese-American woman brought to the U.S. in the 1975 Operation Babylift back to meet her birth mother.
Operation Babylift was supposedly a program to rescue orphans, but Heidi Bub (ne Mai Thi Hiep), whose father was a U.S. soldier, was packed off by a mother frightened that the North Vietnamese were preparing to kill all mixed-race children. (That her husband, who deserted her to join the Vietcong eight years before, was also returning home may also have been a factor.) Consequently, seven-year-old Heidi was put on a plane and brought up in Pulaski, Tennessee—the town in which the original Ku Klux Klan was founded—by a remarkably withholding and punitive single mother who, according to Heidi, told her to conceal her Vietnamese background and threw her out when she was in college for returning from a date 10 minutes after curfew. (The estrangement was evidently permanent; Heidi's adoptive mother never appears in the doc.)
The twice-rejected Heidi married her high school sweetheart, a navy officer, and is herself the mother of two small daughters. Sweetly bovine, she seems younger than her age and thoroughly Americanized—not least in her search for unconditional maternal love. Heidi's trip fulfills long-nurtured fantasies, but these great expectations come to naught—or worse. Heidi's emotional reunion with her birth mother, Mai Thi Kim, and half siblings gives way to mutual misunderstanding. Mother Kim all but smothers her lost child in sticky affection while Heidi, having found what she wanted, becomes increasingly defensive and disoriented. Before long, their strong physical resemblance extends to matching unhappy frowns.
After a few days in Vietnam, the American daughter is desperate to change the channel and go home—shocked and overwhelmed by this brand-new family blatantly trying to milk her for financial support. Daughter From Danang is like the unhappy outtake from the recent PBS documentary on Babylift reunions, Precious Cargo. Whatever heartwarming scene the impressively discreet filmmakers may have expected to record with their mini digital videocamera, they show a remarkable ability to document both sides of this emotional car wreck. It's a sad story that grows sadder.
Heidi herself is a product of American altruism and ethnocentrism. (Dolgin and Franco incorporate amazing vintage footage of a U.S. social worker browbeating Vietnamese mothers to send their children to America—it's a pity they don't provide information on what became of those racially mixed kids who remained.) Operation Babylift was an attempt to provide some semblance of an American happy ending to the Vietnam debacle. But as Daughter From Danang demonstrates, the war's scars may take another generation to heal.
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Daughter From Danang screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Wed., 6 p.m. $8.