Green Dragon suffers from its best intentions. Director and writer Timothy Linh Bui, in this quasi-autobiographical story, wants to chronicle an actual event in United States and Vietnamese history—the housing of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in camps in the States before dispersal throughout the nation—but his hesitation against deviating from the reality of the situation has left him with a story denuded of drama.
The narrative blends a handful of stories in a unity of time and place. The time is 1975 and the place is a Marine run tent city where broken families come to regroup and fan out. The main character is Tai (Don Duong), a calm, philosophical man who is made an assistant to the camp commander, Gunnery Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze). Tai develops feelings for Thuy Hoa (Hiep Thi Le), the daughter of a prominent soldier. Meanwhile, his nephew (Trung Nguyen) yearns to be joined by his mother, who may or may not be dead. In her place, he develops a tentative friendship with a cook on the staff (Forest Whitaker, who is also an executive producer) who has a secret life as a cartoonist, and other secrets. There are two or three other subplots, all designed to reflect complications attendant on the disruptions and upheavals of refugee life.
In its gentleness and sobriety, Green Dragon has the look and feel of a well-meaning film hampered by its modest budget. Unfortunately, the film lacks drama. There are no villains, no real conflicts except internal battles, and each person has their official "problem," which gets resolved one way or the other by the end of the film. By the conclusion, the viewer feels that they have seen a summer camp film instead of a concentration camp film. Given that, Green Dragon is well-acted by thespians largely unknown to mainstream films, and subtly and sensitively acted by familiar faces in uncommonly gentle roles. It's an educational film, in the best sense of the word, but sadly denuded of the narrative tension that would grip the viewer.
VIDEO: Columbia Tristar has gone all out with this modest but prestige-hungry film. The disc is packed with extras. The single-sided, dual layered disc offers a wide screen transfer (1.85:1) enhanced for widescreen televisions. Photographer Kramer Morgenthau comes from the Robert Richardson school of cinematography, with numerous shots using harsh light shining straight down on the characters from above.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio more than suits the needs of this conversation-filled film. There is also a track in DD 2.0 and a Spanish track in DD 2.0. Subtitles come only in English.
MENUS:The animated, musical menu offers 24 chapter scene selection for the 113 minute movie.
EXTRAS: Green Dragon comes festooned with extras. At the very least they serve to explicate the filmmakers' intentions and to further adhere to the historical reality the film is chronicling. At the same time, they suggest overkill. Leading off the supplements is an audio commentary track by the director and the DP. Mostly they address technical problems and how they solved them under budgetary constraints, or recount the background of scenes, be they personal or historical. Next are eight brief deleted scenes, with optional commentary from the director. As usual, they help rather than hinder understanding key parts of the plot. Most of them are no more than about 30 seconds long, and a certain sub plot resides here. There's a "making of" documentary that is just under 20 minutes, and clearly enunciates the director's intentions. There's also a reprint of an article called "Light and Life in Green Dragon," which takes up 21 screens, and written by An Tran for Come,atographer.com. Finally, there's the theatrical trailer (just under two minutes), a 19-color-image photo gallery, filmographies for most of the cast, and "bonus trailers" for Crouching Tiger, Beijing Bicycle, and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. All in all, it's a good package for those who truly warm to the film.