DVD: Green Dragon (2001)

November 24, 2015 | By

 

GreenDragon2001Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Sony

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  September 10, 2001

Genre:  Drama / War / Vietnam War

Synopsis: Intimate drama on Vietnamese refugees at a processing camp in California, circa 1975, focusing on an uncle and his nephew as they await sponsorship and leave for their new home in America.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with director Timothy Bui and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau / Behind-the-scenes documentary (19:54) / 8 Deleted Scenes with optional director commentary (10:38) / Photo Gallery / 6 Filmographies / American Cinematographer article “Light and Life in the Green Dragon” by An Tran.

 


 

Review:

Timothy and Tony Bui’s chronicle of newly arrived refugees from Vietnam in 1975 is what you’d call a forgotten film – a small, carefully crafted drama that outside of select markets probably had little screen time, and whose 2002 DVD is an old non-anamorphic transfer (which is quite bizarre, given the film was mastered when Sony was putting out more than enough anamorphic discs and full screen flipper combos).

Luckily the film is heavily contextualized with extras, but even if it had been released as a bare bones disc, Green Dragon would still maintain its relevance. There’s one melodramatic storyline that steals time away from more interesting characters, but the film is still an affecting, low-key chronicle of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees (pre-boat people exodus) that were housed in four main military bases across the U.S., of which Camp Pembleton set up enough tents and accommodations within 48 hours to house 15,000 men, women, and children.

Both the Bui brothers and many of the actors and crew came as refugees, making this an immediately personal story, but as director Timothy Bui recounts in his running commentary with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, in 2000 little information was widely available regarding the refugee camps where masses were processed and billeted for 3 month terms as families and individuals awaited sponsorships that would bus them to different parts of the U.S.

Bui and co-writer-producer-second unit director Tony Bui did extensive research, conducting interviews with military and civilian subjects and incorporating many stories into their script. Co-star / executive producer Forest Whitaker soon attracted Franchise Pictures’ Andrew Stevens and Elie Samaha, a pair best-known for high-profile action films (Driven, Get Carter) than indie dramas, and with a budget of roughly $2 million, helped bankroll the production that was filmed entirely at Camp Pembleton. (In the commentary track, Timothy Bui recalls virtually every building was still present, making it easy to dress the locations, and with a vivid array of costumes, evoke 1975.)

The central story focuses on two characters, Tai Tran (Duong Don) and his nephew Minh (Trung Nguyen), both recent arrivals hoping the rest of their family will arrive before their three month term is up. As Tai is appointed translator by Gunnery Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze, giving a nicely measured performance), more characters are introduced, including love interest Thuy Hoa (Hiep Thi Le) and her general father, an older and formerly wealthy couple and a ‘second’ wife (Kathleen Long) who shares a past with a former lover, and guilt-ridden Quang Hai (Long Nguyen) who longs to return to Vietnam and reunite with his family.

Minh doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids, and finds a friend and mentor in Addie (Whitaker), the cook who shares a keen interest in Mighty Mouse and painting. Both ultimately collaborate on a mural, while Sgt. Lance develops a friendship with Tai in spite of many cultural and transitional issues.

At nearly 2 hours, Green Dragon runs a bit too long – some of the deleted scenes could’ve been retained to deepen the lovely courting between Tai and Thuy – whereas the Addie-Minh friendship becomes an unnecessary diversion, especially when Addie’s ‘suspicious’ cough leads to a sudden terminal event that doesn’t become fully maudlin, but doesn’t add anything to the characters beyond a clichéd tragedy preceded by contrived bonding scenes, and the script’s weakest dialogue. The script is divided 40 / 60 between Minh and Tai respectfully, but the character of Addie could’ve been trimmed or excised entirely, giving other characters more room, as the script is filled with small gestures that humanize the refugees and provide small cultural glimpses.

Perhaps the filmmakers’ most daring (but smartest) move is to have the refugees speaking in Vietnamese, saving English for the handful of scenes with Sgt. Lance and the cook, adding both authenticity to the displaced characters and vivifying the film as a docu-drama on the refugee experience.

The performances are generally strong, and those familiar with Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth (1993) will recognize three cast members: Hiep Thi Le (the film’s star, playing Le Ly), Long Nguyen (the upper class suitor who wanted to marry Le Ly as a second wife), and Tuan Tran.

The disc’s commentary starts off well, but the discussion of the film’s production becomes too casual, lacking needed details in the second half and giving more time to detail the lighting design. (There’s a text reproduction from American Cinematographer that covers the same ground.) The most informative bonus is a making-of doc filled with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, although there’s oddly no Q&As with co-stars Don and Le.

A deleted scenes gallery lacks a Play All function, but the extra material can be viewed with and without director commentary. One subplot involving a refugee who’s taken away by soldiers in the night had a backstory, but the extra scenes don’t really clarify why she’s extracted from the camp, and what remains in the film feels oblique. Of the 9 text filmographies, only the final 6 are functional.

A featurette on composers Jeff and Mychael Danna would’ve been nice, but those interested in the score can read about its creation and the use of Vietnamese instruments my interview with Jeff Danna, originally published in Film Score Monthly (see Pages One / Two / Three).

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmographies: Jeff Danna / Mychael Danna
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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