Winner of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature, "Daughter From Danang" is an intelligent, well-observed and ineffably poignant study of an Amerasian woman's attempt to trace her roots by journeying back to Vietnam. Pic is best suited for global tube markets.

Winner of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature, “Daughter From Danang” is an intelligent, well-observed and ineffably poignant study of an Amerasian woman’s attempt to trace her roots by journeying back to Vietnam. Pic is best suited for global tube markets, but merits exposure on fest circuit and in specialized noncommercial venues.

Co-directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco evidence equal measures of sympathetic respect and sharp-eyed alertness as they focus on Heidi Bub — born Mai Thi Hiep, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American G.I. stationed in Danang during the war. Immediately prior to the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Hiep’s mom, greatly distressed by horror stories about Viet Cong mistreatment of mixed-race children, turned Hiep, then 7 years old, over to Operation Babylift, a program designed to place orphans with American adoptive parents.

Interweaving testimony from Heidi, her husband and a few of her childhood friends, docu offers a telling portrait of a Vietnamese-born youngster who eagerly and easily assimilated as an all-American girl with a brand new name in southern Tennessee. Of course, it helped that, even as a child, Heidi didn’t look very Asian. It helped even more, however, that Heidi seldom spoke of her heritage, at the urging of her emotionally distant adoptive mother.

During her college years, Heidi became permanently estranged from her American mom, whose conspicuous absence from docu is never explained; reportedly, she’s alive and well, but unwilling to talk with the filmmakers. And even though Heidi remained relatively close to her American uncle and grandmother, who both appear on camera during “Daughter,” she was determined to find a mother who might grant her unconditional love.Which is why, 22 years after her departure from Vietnam, Heidi found a way to contact Mai Thi Kim, her biological mother. Dolgin and Franco tagged along for the sentimental journey to Danang, no doubt expecting to record a happy ending at a family reunion. Instead, they witnessed something much more emotionally complicated, as Heidi experienced a reconciliation that proved to be, at best, a mixed blessing.

At first, Kim and Heidi are overjoyed to see each other, and Heidi’s half-sisters and half-brother seem equally glad to see their lost-long sibling. Even Do Huu Vinh, Kim’s husband of several years, who was off fighting with the Viet Cong while his wife and children remained in Danang, professes to be pleased by the arrival of Kim’s illegitimate offspring.

(In a provocatively ambiguous scene, Vinh claims — not altogether convincingly — that, had little Hiep not been sent off in Operation Babylift, he would have raised the child as his own daughter.)

The longer Heidi stays in Danang, however, the more apparent the enormous cultural differences between her and her family become. At first, the dissimilarities are mild annoyances. For example, Kim loves to hug and caress her little girl, but Heidi wasn’t raised to be a touchy-feely type.

As her discomfort escalates, however, Heidi wonders aloud if she should cut short her stay. Everything builds to a heart-wrenching family gathering, where Heidi is devastated by her half-brother’s matter-of-fact assertion that she should start providing financial support for her Vietnamese mother and siblings.

With fly-on-the-wall unobtrusiveness, Dolgin and Franco capture every painful moment of the meltdown, and the cumulative effect is deeply moving.

Pic ends without a comforting resolution. And while that’s certainly unfortunate for Heidi — who, more than two years after her visit to Danang hasn’t answered any letters from her Vietnamese family — the open-endedness of the final scenes makes for one of docu’s most affecting elements.

Tech qualities are all the more impressive in light of obvious challenges faced by the filmmakers. One wrong move at the wrong moment, and they would have intruded upon, or even interrupted, the real-life drama unfolding before their cameras.

Daughter From Danang

Docu

Production

An Independent Television Service presentation of an Interfaze Educational Prods. production in association with American Experience and the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn. Produced by Gail Dolgin. Directed by Gail Dolgin, Vicente Franco.

Crew

Camera (color, digital video), Franco; editor, Kim Roberts; music, B. Quincy Griffin, Hector Perez; sound (Dolby), Dan Olmsted, James LeBrecht; associate producer, Sunshine Sara Ludder. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2002. Running time: 80 MIN.
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