Gail Dolgin and Franco Vicente’s heartrending documentary DAUGHTER FROM DANANG shows not only the long-term effects of the Vietnam War in very personal terms, but also looks at how fragile the bonds of blood and family can be. Both insights are disturbing, but in the able hands of these filmmakers, the story of one family’s tragedy is handled with sensitivity and insight.
They subject is Heidi Bub, a Vietnamese-born, all-American southern girl who came to the United States as part of the Vietnamese baby lift in 1975. The reasons for Heidi being part of that baby lift are emblematic of the social turmoil that the country was going through while war raged there. Heidi, or Hiep as she was known then, was not the child of her mother, Kim’s, husband, but rather of an American soldier who had taken Kim and her family under his wing financially while her husband was fighting. There were rumors that mixed-race children like Heidi would be killed by the new government. At best, the social acceptance, not to mention the reaction of Kims husband was a very real concern. Still, when Kim after all these years, talks about giving Heidi away, the tears flow freely, and the sadness transcends the language she speaks, rendering the subtitles superfluous.
With so many expectations on both sides, few if any rooted in reality and those divided by a cultural gulf that no one recognizes for the emotional minefield they are, there could be little chance of anyone coming out of this reunion unscathed. Dolgin and Franco intercut scenes of Heidi’s reunion with her Vietnamese family with the story of Heidi’s American life. Both stories offer poignant counterparts to one another. With their fly-on-the-wall style and seemingly unlimited access are able to capture the most intimate of moments of the reunion, as well as drawing out Heidi’s American family in their on-screen interviews. We see Heidi as a lost child, sent away by her birth mother, rejected by her adoptive mother, and never feeling quite accepted by the people in her small southern town because of her Asian heritage. At one point she tells us that she always wanted the unconditional love of a mother, a real mother. And we know in that moment, though Heidi doesn’t, that she has built up an image of a perfect mother and no matter what she finds in Vietnam, it will fall short the way reality always does. We in the audience see the signs of difficulties to come, while Heidi, overwhelmed physically by jet-lag and emotionally by the swarm of relatives, is woefully unprepared. So we watch as Heidis face changes from one of nervous hope and delight as she meets her family, to one of tearful disappointment.
Though given a life in America that was and is light-years better from a material standpoint than that of her Vietnamese family she was starved emotionally. For all the material poverty of the Vietnamese family, there is a closeness among them that makes a devastating point about the relative meaning of wealth as distinguished from prosperity. The increasing difficulties of the reunion come to a head when Heidi is told what is expected of her as a dutiful Asian daughter as far as monetary support is concerned. There is Heidi in tears, a middle-class American, with a cute haircut and full makeup, nice clothes, and a handful of gold rings hoping that the family she dreamed of would fill a hole in her heart and realizing that it won’t. Her Vietnamese family, barely at the subsistence level, can’t understand why she wouldn’t want to help them. Neither is entirely wrong nor entirely right, but the cultural and emotional differences are at an impasse that can’t be overcome.
There is only one flaw in the film and I hesitate to use that word. It concerns a side issue that I found myself pondering during and after seeing the film. Heidi’s step-father, Vinh, the man who was away fighting while Heidis mother took up with the American soldier who would become Heidi’s father, is very welcoming to her, but there must be a story behind the smile and the warm embrace. This being Heidi’s journey, the filmmakers have left it out, a decision that does keep the story arc intact. Or perhaps he was never forthcoming. As it is, it is an intriguing note and an interesting look at how the American war, as it is known in Vietnam, re-shaped traditional family life there.
For all the tough questions DAUGHTER FROM DANANG raises, the most important may be the one asking us to consider all the ramifications of what it means to go to war.