Chicago Sun Times
Movie review, 'Daughter From Danang'
A brilliant documentary can steer you down a story path that appears predictable but then rips you from complacency and takes you someplace sadder and more disturbing. This is exactly what happens in the Academy Award-nominated "Daughter From Danang," which starts in seemingly traditional fashion as it traces a pleasant young woman's overseas search for her long-lost birth mother. But it rapidly develops into a gut-wrenching examination of the way cultural differences and emotional expectations collide.
The tale centers on Heidi, a 32-year-old wife and mother from Tennessee who was actually born "Heip" in 1968 in South Vietnam, the illegitimate daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier. (The film makes it clear that Heip was not a "love child," but the product of a relationship where her mother "did what she had to do" to survive during the war.) With the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States instituted "Operation Babylift" to get many of these racially mixed children out of the country and into adoptive homes in the States, in part because the government feared what would happen to these children once the North Vietnamese moved in.
Heip was placed in a small town in Tennessee with an older single mother who was a strict disciplinarian. It was a difficult relationship that got worse as Heip reached her teen years. The difficulties, along with her growing curiosity and the passage of time, motivated her to start looking for her birth mother in Vietnam, hoping that a journey home to see her birth mother would provide closure and emotional sustenance.
But the journey proves more complex once Heip arrives in Danang and reunites with her mother and many half-siblings, who live in shoddy housing and can barely make ends meet. Though the guilt is palpable, the mother is ecstatic to see and hold her child.
Once the euphoria of the reunion passes, things boil down to the nuts and bolts of daily life in Vietnam. Heip's birth mother must still work hard to help her other children, fathered by a man who left her during the war to fight with the Viet Cong. She has needs of her own, including financial needs. Though her request for money would seem understandable, it is a dagger in the heart to poor Heip, who has been waiting more than 20 years for a moment of "pure" love to envelop her. The fact that it is tainted by stark reality and desperation sullies the experience, and that only adds to the mother's grief.
Many levels of complexity hold this superlative documentary together. While it would be tempting to take one person's moral stance over the other, it is easy to appreciate both points of view - something that Heip and her mother also seem to understand but have difficulty accepting.
Filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco do masterful work focusing the camera on the key action, even as they keep respectful distance and allow the reunion to develop naturally. By the end, once Heidi is back home with her daughters and husband (who, interestingly, is in the military), we realize that anyone who thinks the horrors of Vietnam ended with our military retreat in 1975 doesn't know the first thing about the long-term effects of war. Time may indeed heal some wounds, but others continue to fester.
4 stars (out of 4)
"Daughter From Danang"
Directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco; produced by Dolgin; photographed by Franco; edited by Kim Roberts; music by B. Quincy Griffin and Hector Perez. Opens Friday at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave. In English and Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1:21. No MPAA rating. Not recommended for young children.
The Kansas City Star
'Bowling for Columbine' isn't the best documentary nominated
Filmmaker-troublemaker Michael Moore finally was nominated for an Academy Award Tuesday when his incendiary "Bowling for Columbine" made the list for best documentary feature.
This was more than simple redemption for the outspoken activist-author from Flint, Mich. Though his breakthrough film "Roger & Me" was famously overlooked by the academy, "Bowling for Columbine" is to date his finest achievement. It's an ambitious work in which the killing spree of two troubled teens in Colorado is seen anew through Moore's wide-ranging social lens.
Moore indicts two convenient targets - the gun lobby and the news media - but then goes beyond that, arguing that those interests have simply fueled the fire of our growing national paranoia and our callousness toward society's least fortunate. "Columbine" is provocative, but also hilarious and at times deeply moving.
Moore will probably be considered the favorite to win the Oscar. He is our best-known documentary filmmaker, and "Columbine" has already won the Anniversary Prize from the Cannes Film Festival and numerous critics' awards.
But he may not win - in fact, let me go further. He shouldn't win the Oscar. Outstanding though it is, "Bowling for Columbine" is not the best film in the documentary field this year.
I know this because I have seen "Daughter From Danang," the astonishing work from directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, which was nominated in the same category. "Daughter From Danang" is an emotionally raw account of the reunion between a Vietnamese woman and the daughter she sent to the United States in the 1970s as part of Operation Babylift.
It was produced for PBS but screened last year at film festivals, including Sundance, where it won a Grand Jury Prize. "Daughter" will appear on PBS' "The American Experience" April 7.
The film begins in Tennessee, where we meet Heidi Bub, Southern gal and happily married mom. She has always dreamed of meeting the woman who brought her into the world, and when she learns her identity, a meeting in Danang is joyfully arranged.
Almost immediately dark clouds are on the horizon. Heidi is estranged from her adoptive mother - and it becomes slowly apparent that she has no idea how vast the divide is between America and Vietnam. The filmmakers let us see it all, even the most agonizing moments of Heidi's trip. Somehow the camera is intimate without becoming invasive. What we see is uncomfortable and ultimately heartbreaking.
Yet beyond the overwhelming personal drama, "Daughter From Danang" is also a parable of cultural tone-deafness. It's not hard to see Heidi as a typical American, expecting the rest of the world to understand her yet somehow unable to reciprocate.
Dolgin and Franco let this insight reveal itself naturally and unobtrusively. As a result, they have given us an historical account of timeless value, a cautionary tale about how we relate all too often to other countries and cultures.
Other than Errol Morris, no documentary director has been slighted as often by the Academy Awards as Michael Moore. However, a lot has changed since "Roger & Me." Thanks to people like Moore, Morris and HBO executive Sheila Nevins (known in the industry as the "Queen of Docs"), documentary films are frequently just as heart-rending or gut-busting as their fictional counterparts.
Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising if another little-known nominee, "Spellbound," won the best documentary feature Oscar. Jeff Blitz's improbably thrilling account of the 1999 National Spelling Bee has also been delighting audiences at film festivals across the land.
The academy has been known to hand out "career achievement" Oscars before, and it would not be the greatest injustice if "Bowling for Columbine" should win best documentary feature. But if it does, it will have prevailed over a better film, the unforgettable "Daughter From Danang."
Daughter From Danang
By Duane Byrge
PARK CITY -- It's a mother and daughter reunion with all the emotions that can fly after a 22-year separation. The story of one Vietnamese-American woman's visit to the Vietnamese mother who gave her up following the Vietnam War so that she might have a better life in the United States, "Daughter From Danang" is a sobering and powerful documentary about the most severe kind of personal loss: rejection by one's mother. Bracingly told, this entrant in the documentary competition here at the Sundance Film Festival is a stirring and moving depiction of one young Amerasian woman's family ordeal.
This is Heidi's story, the real-life saga of a young Tennessee-raised woman who was shipped to the United States as a child and put up for adoption. She was raised as a typical American girl, Southern-fried a bit and every bit the girl next door. Since she didn't perceptively look much different from the regular Tennessee kids, Heidi was never looked upon as a foreigner and went through all the typical kid's rites of passages in red-white-blue style. It was, indeed, out of the blue that Heidi as a young adult received a letter from a woman in Vietnam who was obviously her mother, a woman she had no contact with in 22 years.
Filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco document Heidi's uncertain return to her birth mother and, in so doing, open up more than just the story of a joyful visit; they show us the long-festering wounds that Heidi has received in her life. Heidi acutely feels that she has been rejected by two mothers: her birth mother who gave her up and her Tennessee mother, whose cold, untouching demeanor drove a wedge between them. While focused on the journey to Vietnam, the filmmakers smartly trace the history of Heidi's circumstances and paint an atmospheric and psychological picture of her growing up. It's an even-handed portrait of an uncertain life, the story of a girl who never felt she belonged anywhere.
"Daughter From Danang's" power lies with its simple and eloquent presentation, never swaying to make editorial points nor intruding with suppositions of what Heidi may be or what life course may be best. It's a complex portrait, etched with intelligence and framed with respect. Dolgin and Franco have most respectfully crafted a story filled with humanity. Told with a humility that bespeaks Heidi's own respectful nature, it's terrifically powerful. With their judicious and comprehensive charting of the course of Heidi's life, the filmmakers make us feel for this young woman who, essentially, is not only torn between two mothers and two homelands but, in the end, realizes that she is alone and must make her own home.
In this softly stated depiction, the technical contributions are succinctly excellent, including cinematographer Franco's illuminating compositions, as well as B. Quincy Griffin and Hector Perez's flavored music, conveying the multi-tonal personal chords in Heidi's own life.
Daughter From Danang opens with wrenching footage of weeping, biracial Vietnamese children (reportedly orphans, though many were not) who were airlifted to the United States in 1975 as the war was ending. The action was part of a campaign to give the stranded offspring of American G.I.s a better life — and to snag some last-minute sympathy for the war. Heidi Bub (a.k.a. Mai Thi Hiep) was one of those children. Adopted by an American single mom and raised in Tennessee, Heidi returned to Vietnam 22 years after leaving to reunite with her birth mother, Mai Thi Kim, and her Vietnamese half-siblings. Directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco build slowly toward the actual reunion, sketching in the lives of all involved since the separation. Heidi’s emotionally disturbed adoptive mom, Mai Thi Kim’s hardships as she mourned her daughter, and Heidi’s current life as a wife and mother are all captured in tautly edited interviews and revealing sojourns through both Tennessee and a poverty-stricken Vietnam. The directors carefully excavate details of the women’s lives, creating an atmosphere of expectation and bundled-up emotions that is neither overly sentimental nor intrusive. But almost from the moment Heidi returns to her homeland, things go awry. The aggressive, almost overpowering kisses that Kim lavishes on Heidi are contrasted subtly with Heidi’s slow recoil from them. Heidi’s anguished voice-over puts the viewer inside her head at such awkward moments, which mount with horrifying speed as her blood relatives’ expectations crush in on her. Culture clash manifests itself in the grasping emotional and financial neediness of the Vietnamese clan, which chafes against the emotional reserve (and scars) that lie beneath Heidi’s Southern bubbliness. As fantasies of happily-ever-after dissipate — a reality hauntingly embodied by the image of Mai Thi Kim sitting at a dinner table, so forlorn she’s unable to eat — the film’s almost unbearable portrait of sadness and grief transcends its specific story to speak to the ways in which need, history and presumption tangle, and sometimes destroy, blood ties.