Refugee Tales: Heaven & Earth (1993) + Green Dragon (2001)

November 24, 2015 | By

This week’s offering include several clusters of Twilight Time titles and some vintage exploitation, plus a few belated soundtrack reviews – a near computer crash put things on hold, hogging up oodles of review and film editing time.

I’ll keep the preamble brief, but it’s perhaps subconsciously deliberate that I picked a pair of films dealing with refugees, given so much has been in the news about Syrians fleeing their homeland as war and assorted cruelties have made normal life virtually impossible.

HeavenAndEarth1993_BROliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth (1993) is perhaps one of his least-known works, partially because it wasn’t exactly welcomed by critics, and may still be regarded from a distant as a dud. It’s a flawed attempt to chronicle the epic life of Le Ly Hayslip, a young woman who journeyed from a country village to the U.S., and endured some truly horrific events. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is packed with multiple extras that should please Stone’s fans, and present a near definitive special edition to a film deserving a second chance, especially in HD, with Robert Richardson’s extraordinary cinematography.

GreenDragon2001Star Hiep Thi Le also appeared in a little indie film called Green Dragon (2001), which focuses on the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arriving at Camp Pendleton in 1975, right after the fall of Saigon. The brothers Timothy and Tony Bui drew from personal stories and research material to dramatize what they found to be an event that wasn’t necessarily marginalized by historians, but kind of forgotten.

Sony (and later Lionsgate) released the film on DVD way back in 2002 in a pretty packed special edition (remember when the label used to produce those?), and that year I interviewed co-composer Jeff Danna for Film Score Monthly when the soundtrack album was making the rounds. (I’ve posted links to scans of the hardcopy at the end of the review.)

The refugee experience makes up perhaps a thin third of Stone’s film – the bigger story is the effect of war on an insular community as military factions brutalize and exploit its inhabitants – whereas the Buis’ film deals exclusively with the emotional and physical displacement of refugees, and was filmed in the actual environs where 15,000 men, women, and children were processed on military bases that set up accommodations within roughly 48 hours.

That’s one camp, handling families desperately trying to reconnect with those they hope are in transit and not dead, arrested, or trapped; looking for a better life because there’s no home to return to. The option to repatriate was offered by the military, but according to the Buis’ chronicle, most gambled on stating in the U.S. because their prior lives, homes, finances, jobs, communities, and futures were in tatters.

The U.S. government sponsored the initial wave of refugees, and the decision was to spread out people so no single city was inundated or compelled to support one massively displaced population, but as director Timothy Bui recounts in his commentary track, the ploy ultimately fractured families, and many spent years trying to reconnect, ultimately establishing larger communities in specific states.

Green Dragon may deal with the transitional lives of pro-American war refugees, but their experiences are still universal, and while it’s an admittedly sentimental film, it’s worth discovering, because the confusion, fears, and culture shocks of the displaced are presented in unpretentious, low-key moments.

There’s no gunplay, explosions, raunchy affairs, Communist sleeper fells, or provoked uprisings between refugees and the camp’s military – just subdued fear as the refugees grapple with the challenges of their imminent lives outside of the camp in a new community; and the military trying to help reunite families and find them homes within tight timelines.

Security issues are reduced in the script to almost subliminal levels because the stories deal with fears that mandate more screen time, but that timeline really resonates in 2015.

If 15,000 refugees where processed in a setup that took days to erect with each member given 3 months to find a sponsor, a timeline chosen to ensure the flow of future citizens remained steady and (humane), there’s no reason Canada can’t accomplish a similar feat.

Taking in 25,000 refugees by then end of this year is a heavy task, but even 10,000-15,000 is not impossible. It’s like guests arriving for a week-long stay that may stretch accommodations and the budget and temperaments when too many people are cramped in a small abode, but the reward in this case is ultimately enriching the country’s cultural fabric and brainpower, not potentially eradicating it with sleeper cells or bankrupting the federal treasury with extended humanitarian aide.

We’ve spent more than $1.2 billion (the recent estimated cost to address 25,000 refugees over 4 years) on cancelled fighter jet and helicopter contracts, unbuilt patrol ships and icebreakers – money pits and boondoggles and blunders that go back several Prime Ministers – but we’ve yet to fuck up on a similar scale when it comes to investing in people. When given a chance to join the country, cities like Toronto have benefitted from a rich multicultural population.

There’s no such thing as an easy solution, easy transition, or snag-free process, but if over the past 50 years Toronto had turned away immigrants and refugees out of fear, it wouldn’t have grown to an amazing cultural centre packed with so many languages, colours, creeds, skills, and arts.

Coming next: modern noir starring Sean Penn in the guise of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) via Twilight Time, and Pierre Morel’s The Gunman (2015) from Universal.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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