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Green Dragon (2002) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

camp tai lance refugees

Principal social themes: immigration, suicide/depression

Franchise Pictures. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker, Don Duong, Trung Nguyen, Hiep Thi Le, Kathleen Luong, Billinjer Tran, Phuoc Quan Nguyen, Long Nguyen, Catherine Ai, Phu Cuong, Jennifer Tran, Khu Chinh. Written by Timothy Linh Bui. Cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Edited by Leo Trombetta. Music by Jeff and Michael Danna. Produced by Tony Bui, Tajamika Paxton, Elie Samaha, and Andrew Stevens. Directed by Timothy Linh Bui. Color. 113 minutes.


Green Dragon is a detailed portrait of several months at an internment center for Vietnamese refugees on the grounds of the Marine base of Camp Pendleton, California, during 1975. Most of the people have lost everything in leaving their homeland, and they look forward with both trepidation and hope to their future in their new country, the United States. Green Dragon provides an excellent overview on the topic of immigration, concentrating on the treatment of a mass influx of more than 120,000 individuals during a brief span of time. The many problems they face—from language difficulties, cultural shock, and the separation and loss of family members—is examined through the experiences of a small number of people who are the central focus of the story. The political and religious differences of the refugees themselves are covered, as well as the efforts of the Americans who care for them and try to make their transition from the camp to American society as smooth as possible. On the whole, Green Dragon has been critically acclaimed as one of the finest efforts ever dealing with the issue.


Green Dragon opens in April 1975, as Vietnamese refugees arrive at Camp Pendleton. The main focus is a seven-year-old boy named Minh, who keeps hoping his parents will show up at the camp. Meanwhile, he and his young sister, Anh, are looked after by their Uncle Tai. Gunnery Sergeant Jim Lance, in command of the camp, asks Tai to serve as his camp manager since he is fluent in English. His duties have him act as liaison to the various groups in camp, expedite requests, settle problems and keep Lance informed of any unusual situations. Meanwhile, Minh becomes friendly with Addie, a volunteer working in the camp kitchen. Addie draws sketches for the youngster, including one of the boy in a Mighty Mouse costume, his favorite comic book. For relaxation, Addie is painting a large mural in the back of the mess hall, and he invites Minh to paint the right half of the mural while he concentrates on the left.

Tai proves to be very useful to Lance, helping to separate out individuals who have decided to return to Vietnam, for example. When a Vietnamese general arrives in camp, Tai questions him and learns that his brother, Minh’s father, died in battle. The general is depressed, and some of the other refugees berate him as a failure. After the news reports the fall of Saigon to the Communists, the general commits suicide. Sergeant Lance tries to comfort the general’s daughter, but she assaults him, blaming him and the other Americans for abandoning their country to the Vietcong. Lance is troubled by her outburst, and he later reads to Tai the last letter written by his own brother, whom Lance encouraged to volunteer for duty in Vietnam. Tai concludes that the people of both America and Vietnam have lost much in the war that just ended.

Among the various people Tai encounters is a beautiful young woman who claims she is the second wife of another refugee. In fact, she is little more than a servant to the first wife and her husband, who keeps her around for his own carnal desires. Tai tells her she is not legally wed and offers to marry her himself. Lance puts together a wonderful ceremony for their wedding, and another of Tai’s brothers shows up. He brings the sad news that their sister, Minh’s mother, died trying to escape Vietnam by boat. Minh suffers another loss when his friend Addie dies. Unknown to anyone, the volunteer had a terminal illness. Lance gives all of Addie’s sketches to Minh, but their wall mural is painted over. Many of the refugees begin to feel too attached to the camp. Lance and Tai have an argument when the sergeant explains that they need to encourage the refugees to move on with their lives once a sponsor is found for them. The sergeant takes Tai on a tour outside the camp so he can get a feel for the American lifestyle and demonstrates how various immigrants cope with employment, handle their own money, and so on. He explains about minimum wage, for example, and other lifestyle factors. Tai becomes filled with a fresh enthusiasm, and he gives informal talks to spark the interest of the other camp residents about their future. Finally, Tai, Minh, and Anh leave the camp, given a fond send-off by Sergeant Lance. End titles explain that the refugee camp was closed in October 1975, and more than a million and a half Vietnamese were assimilated into American society.


Green Dragon would be an especially useful film to recommend to students to illustrate various aspects of the issue of immigration. The individual reasons for immigration, the search for economic security, the desire for freedom, and flight from oppression are represented by various characters in the story. All of the refugees appear to be treated equally, but it is also clear that they will face different hurdles in blending intro their new country. The various educational levels among them, for instance, will be a prime factor. Many of these refugees are of middle-class background, doctors, professionals, officers, and so forth. Some are also tied to their past, such as the general who saw himself as an uprooted old tree that could not be replanted. Other individuals in the camp, missing relatives left behind in Vietnam, want to return to their homeland no matter who is in political control. Other refugees sometimes denounce them as Communists, and this infighting and rivalry are realistically portrayed. Many in the camp are just too weary to plan for their future and suffer from a debilitating inertia. On the other hand, a large number will face both poverty and racism. One entrepreneur in the camp is already making inroads as a merchant operating on a bicycle. He boasts that there will soon be a “Little Saigon” in America, with a thriving economy of shops, restaurants, and curio dealers. The real heart of the film is Addie’s relationship with the young Minh. The contrast of Forest Whitaker, a large, beefy black man, with the somewhat melancholy Minh is remarkable, as when Addie shows the youngster sketches of his father, who abandoned him in his youth, or his mother who died when he was young. Patrick Swayze is excellent as the well-meaning Sergeant Lance, who endeavors to treat the refugees as fellow human beings, although his military demeanor and attitude sometimes undermine his efforts. As Tai tells him, he needs to quit relying on his megaphone when trying to talk to people. On the whole, the point of view of Green Dragon is very positive, and a benevolent portrayal of the old American dream symbolized by the Statue of Liberty (which appears in Addie’s mural). The message is that the American dream is still alive, but it must be embraced and pursued to come to complete fruition.

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