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All in the Family: The big reunion doesn't go as planned in 'Daughter From Danang.'

Danang Yankees

Weird story of a Vietnam refugee-turned-redneck drives the coming home of the prodigal daughter in 'Danang'

By Sarah Phelan

HALFWAY THROUGH the award-winning Pacific Rim Film Festival entry Daughter From Danang, interpreter Tran Tuong Nhu says, "The eve of our departure to Vietnam, Heidi gave me a little silver star. On it was engraved 'Thank you for making my dreams come true.' And in a way, her dream came true, and it was much, much more than she had bargained for."

No kidding. The above-mentioned Heidi is the now grown-up daughter from Danang. Born to a Vietnamese mother (and an American serviceman who left before she was born), Heidi was originally named Mai Thi Hiep. But when she was 7 years old, her mother gave her up to the Ford administration's Operation Babylift, after rumors circulated that Amerasian children were going to be burned.

And so a confused Hiep was airlifted to Pulaski, Tenn., said to be the original home of the Ku Klux Klan and definitely not the kind of place where you'd want to let on that your mother is in Vietnam. Which explains in part how Hiep becomes the "101 percent Americanized" bologna-eating Heidi Bub--who ends up marrying an American serviceman and living in Navy housing with two toddlers.

Still, blood runs thicker than water, and by 29, Heidi, no longer on speaking terms with her American mother, longs to reunite with her birth mother Mai Thi Kim, whom she manages to track down.

At first, the reunion seems like a dream come true. Heidi, who has never experienced affection from her emotionally detached American mother, is wept over, hugged, kissed, touched and followed almost incessantly by her birth mother and extended family.

Memories return. Heidi breaks out of the bologna belt and tries Vietnamese food for the first time in her life. She is shocked by the squalid living conditions, the people whose bicycle baskets are packed with jumping frogs.

The dream becomes a nightmare when a half-sister, having accepted money, asks for more and pretty soon her whole extended family is laying out her filial and financial responsibility to them, the first step of which involves taking her mother to the United States.

The ensuing uproar captures the vast distance between American and Vietnamese cultures, not to mention the economic disparities. Heidi can't support her Vietnamese family financially, but she also finds herself suffocating from cloying emotional closeness.

The film makes quite an impact, but some questions remain. For instance, directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco do not explain in the film how much influence interpreter Nhu or other Vietnamese people had on Heidi's preparation for her trip--these are the kinds of questions audiences may want to throw at the directorial duo, who will be present at the Pacific Rim Film Festival screening for a Q&A session afterwards.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Daughter From Danang plays Tuesday, 7pm, at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.

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From the October 30-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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