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Learning Curve: Tai Tran (Don Duong) manages the refugee camp in 'Green Dragon.'

Between Lives

Sunnyvale filmmakers Tony and Timothy Linh Bui explore the Vietnamese immigration experience in masterful 'Green Dragon'

By Richard von Busack

BEFORE Tony and Timothy Linh Bui came to Sunnyvale to live--and long before Tony won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for Three Seasons, his film about Vietnam--both were children interned in a refugee camp in Fort Chafee, Ark., for several months during 1975. The subject of Green Dragon, Tim Bui's new film, is stateless families caught between their old lives in Vietnam and their new ones in America.

On Three Seasons, Timothy produced and Tony directed. For Green Dragon, they reversed roles. But both brothers are plainly enamored of the same aesthetic: a dreamy, lambent way of depicting an interlude in time. They're not so much directors as "indirectors." Almost everything they put onscreen resists melodrama, even in this story of families shattered and a country lost. When interviewing them, I'm not surprised to hear that Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) is one of their favorite directors.

Green Dragon shifts around various characters housed in Quonset huts where thousands of newly evacuated South Vietnamese wait to be rejoined with their families. The Buis filmed in Southern California at Camp Pendleton, one of the four camps in the United States where Vietnamese refugees, mostly ex-military or authorities in the South Vietnamese government, were taken at the end of the war. Tim explains, "We took all these stories from the different refugee camps, but the experiences were mostly the same."

"And Camp Pendleton was the largest of all refugee camps," Tony interjects.

Patrick Swayze plays the Westerner's liaison man into the story. He's at his best here as Sgt. Jim Lance, an Army journalist and photographer. Lance, who never went to the war, is now in charge of the large, sometimes fractious camp.

Swayze doesn't have much dialogue. A sometimes-carefree actor can be lent gravity by silence, by cutting back his dialogue. Lance's quietness was in the script from the beginning, however. Director Timothy Bui says they made Swayze's character a man of few words in order to reflect "internal conflict; he walks through the camps, and it's the first time he's come face to face with the Vietnamese people his brother went overseas to fight with."

The Buis weave in several plots: the rivalry between an overdressed first wife and the second wife she loathes; an unmarried mother; the schemes of the camp hustler Duc (Billinjer C. Tran), representing the energy the new immigrants were about to bring to America.

Most of Lance's attention centers on Tai Tran, played by Vietnamese movie star Don Duong, who played the cyclo driver in Three Seasons. He's also the Bui brothers' uncle in real life. In the film, Tai is also an uncle, to two very young children he hopes have not been orphaned: Mihn Pham (San Jose's Trung Hieu Nguyen) and Ahn Pham (Jennifer Tran).

The young Mihn strikes up a friendship with the camp's cook, Addie (Forest Whitaker, who was the film's executive producer through his Spirit Dance Productions company), and the title comes from a secret mural Addie and Mihn work on together. Through the mural, Addie reveals his own miseries a child. Using a paintbrush, Mihn, too, is able to express his youthful fears. ("For a kid who never opens his mouth, you sure talk a lot," Addie says.)

The title, Tim tells me, not only refers to the mural but also symbolizes the Vietnamese ancestor legend: "We're all supposed to be children of a dragon."

Green Dragon has the tang of autobiography, not so much because of the hopes for the new country but because of the terror and pain of being wrenched out of an old one. The film is sometimes mystical and sometimes brooding, yet always practical.

In one scene, Lance takes Tai out of the camp to an offscreen supermarket. In films, immigrants usually talk about freedom and other noble abstractions. They rarely talk about something very tangible like a bag of groceries. (One exception that comes to mind occurs in The Grapes of Wrath, where Grandpa Joad's plan is to go west not for the sake of future generations but to get his hands on some of that luscious California fruit.)

Tim based the incident on stories he picked up during his research for the film. "I heard that all the time--about how exotic the American supermarkets were, with their sliding doors," he says. "I heard a story of how a military man took one man in the camp out to see one, and he returned with oranges and grapes to bring back to camp; he was amazed at the size of the fruit and how juicy it was. It was very significant, and it brought these people some hope. They were there in the camps, surrounded by the desert, and they couldn't leave. And the food that was the proof that there is some life outside."

The Bui brothers grew up on Santa Paula Avenue, near Fair Oaks Park in Sunnyvale. As Tony told me in an interview in 1998, "My father, Sam Son Bui, was working for Memorex. After he left, he opened five video stores. This was pre-Blockbuster. Suddenly I had 50,000 movies at my disposal. I ended up watching 20 films a week. It rocked me. Film is such an incredible medium that utilizes so many art forms: literature, music, performance. The craft and the art fascinated me. This was definitely what I wanted to go into."

Both went to film school and began working together. Of their collaboration, Tony says, "It's pretty effortless, whoever's directing holds the vision. The other's there to support. The roles are pretty defined. And you're working with your brother--you don't have to explain as much."

The Buis work together as Rickshaw Productions. Despite the name, they're not intending to specialize in Asian films. Their upcoming projects are Leaving Earth and Saharan. The first is based on Helen Humphreys' novel about a pair of 1930s-era female aviators who plan to break the endurance record with a month-long flight. The other is a story of contemporary Los Angeles.

"Both of these stories," Tony says, "sidestep away from the Vietnamese theme. There are other stories to tell that aren't Vietnamese."

Tim adds, "We're not just Vietnamese filmmakers."

Still, seeing the bus leave the camp, in the last shot of Green Dragon, you can't help wishing for another chapter. You'd like to see the arrival of these characters in the cities and to hear the Buis tell the rest of the story.

Green Dragon (PG-13; 113 min.), directed by Timothy Linh Bui, written by Timothy and Tony Linh Bui, photographed by Kramer Morgenthau and starring Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker, Don Duong, Hiep Thi Le and Trung Hieu Nguyen, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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