“Green Dragon” falls prey to some threadbare Hollywood conventions, but otherwise maintains a high level of maturity and emotion as it examines the lives of Vietnamese refugees entering America in 1975.
At Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze) is the Marine in charge of housing the refugees until sponsors can be found to help them assimilate into American life. Lance is a kind man, sympathetic to the visitors to the point of trying to learn Vietnamese so he can communicate with them. (Swayze’s Clark Gable mustache lends the actor more dignity than he has enjoyed in past roles, and he mostly lives up to it.)
The group of refugees make an interesting pastiche of characters and story lines. Lance chooses as his translator and assistant a man named Tai (Don Duong), whose niece and nephew are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their mother, who was left behind in Vietnam. The little boy, Minh (Long Nguyen), is befriended by Addy (Forest Whitaker), a rootless camp cook who paints in his spare time and has an affinity to the boy because he, too, is without parents. An entrepreneurial refugee named Duc (Billinjer Tran) is in love with Thuy (Hiep Thi Le), a “country whore” who is already the second wife of another refugee.
As sponsorship becomes available and the Vietnamese can leave the camps, it becomes apparent that life in America frightens them. Here in the camp, things are safe. But the fall of Saigon, as heard by everyone on the radio, has caused everyone to doubt whether the Americans really know how to help them at all, especially if they venture out into the world.
Directed by Timothy Linh Bui and co-written by Bui and his brother Tony Bui, “Green Dragon” is a poignantly hopeful film. It would be a highly original work, too, were it not for a few cheap tricks. The fact that Addy has no parents is a trite convenience to attach him to Minh (couldn’t they both have a love of art, or something?), as is the unnecessary detail that Lance’s brother died in the war “and it should have been me.” The worst, though, is when Addy starts coughing. We all know that movie characters only cough for one reason: They’re dying. Another manipulative stroke for the movie.
It is fairly easy to overlook these quibbles, though, when the finale is so stirring. It’s a sensitive movie, bolstered by solid performances from Duong, Nguyen and Whitaker (Addy and Minh have a particularly sweet friendship), and a heartening message.
B (; )