Green Dragon is set at Camp Pendleton in the last days of the Vietnam War. It is a snapshot of life in the camp for the many thousands of refugees that passed through the gates. It has no real story as such, and spends most of the 108 minutes examining the shattered lives of a handful of refugees who are typical of many of those in the camp.
Minh (Trung Nguyen) is five years old, and his sister Anh (Jennifer Tran) is a bit younger. Along with their Uncle Tai (Don Duong), they are awaiting a sponsor, but more importantly they are desperately awaiting the arrival of the children’s mother, and Minh spends most of every day scouring the camp for her. Tai feels some guilt for he insisted on taking a place on the evacuation plane that should probably have been allotted to the children’s mother.
There is the fellow with has two wives and a mess of trouble to go with it. The camp even contains a former Vietnamese army general who can’t cope with failing to stand and defend his country. Men who also feel a mixture of anger, regret and frustration at what is happening back in Saigon as US forces withdraw.
Duc (Billinjer Tran) is ever hopeful that he can be a successful businessman in America, and has begun a small business in the camp obtaining things for his fellow refugees - for a price.
Not all of the film focuses on the plight of the refugees. The camp commander, Gunnery Sgt. Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze), is a war veteran unable to return to active duty. He carries the burden of his brother’s death in Vietnam, and is almost apologetic for his country’s interference in Vietnam and its inability to do the job properly. He also cares about the refugees, but is above all a military man who runs his camp by the rules.
Addie (Forest Whitaker) is a cook who befriends the young Minh, whom he relates to as an orphan himself. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and it is Addie who helps Minh come out of his shell a little through art, and his painting of a mural on a forgotten wall.
Life in the camp is a mix of frustration, anger, love, loyalty and above all friendship. Refugees come and go - not all willingly - and everyday brings a new surprise or a new tragedy.
Green Dragon is a bit of a sleeper that doesn’t really lift the pace, but the last few scenes do tie up a few loose ends. The film does not end as happily as you might expect, but that’s life. It doesn’t leave you wondering what happened to any of the main players as such, but leaves the threads of their lives dangling. Some leave happy and others leave angry, but all leave with fear and dread of what lies ahead.
The acting from the mostly unknown Vietnamese cast is good, and there are subtitles for much of the film. Swayze and Whitaker do credible jobs, but they are not the focus of the film. Although the DVD cover might suggest a meaty Vietnam war drama, as do the opening archival scenes, this film is anything but a war drama. It is a slice of life and as such is an evenly paced character drama that will require patience and still offer limited reward.
Generally speaking, Green Dragon is good visually with few problems. The aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is 16:9 enhanced and offers reasonable clarity and sharpness throughout. Colours are solid and natural, as are skin tones. Black levels are fine, although shadow detail tends to be variable.
There are a very few white sparkles that pop up infrequently and the odd piece of dirt and grime that comes as a surprise given the recent age of the film. Grain is mostly nonexistent and while there is little aliasing or shimmer, there is some mild edge enhancement that most viewers will not notice. Overall, this is quite watchable and the few problems noted are minor, infrequent and easily ignored.
The only option is the reasonably good English Dolby Digital 5.1, although much of the film is actually in Vietnamese with burned-in English subtitles. There are also optional English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles.
Most dialogue is clear and audible, bar some of the Vietnamese actors when they deliver their few English lines. The dialogue is mostly placed in the centre speaker, with some separation across the front.
The rears are used for both ambience and an awful lot for trucks, planes and helicopters. There are also one or two quick dream sequences where they are particularly active.
The subwoofer makes infrequent appearances, but with a lack of big action scenes and a subtle score, this is expected.