'From Hollywood to Hanoi': A native daughter returns to her roots

October 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Here indeed is a different look at a melancholy topic. The topic is the disastrous war in Vietnam and the point of view is one never before recorded.

Thi Thanh Nga was the daughter of well-connected Catholic conservative Vietnamese ---her father was the Republic of Vietnam Foreign Ministry's press attache for a while -- who fled that country in 1966, seeing the writing on the wall nine years before it came true. She was raised aggressively as an American -- her two brothers became California state troopers! -- and for a time eked out a small-potatoes career as an actress in low-grade karate flicks, under the name (an English transliteration of her Vietnamese name) Tiana.

But sometime in the late '80s she began to feel as if she'd been cut loose in time. Not fully American, she was not remotely Vietnamese. Her parents, staunch anti-Communists, forbade her from returning to her native land. But -- she was an American girl, remember? -- she did what she wanted to, and her trip back to the land and the history that spawned her is an amazing journey, which she records in "From Hollywood to Hanoi," an amiable, sometimes irritating little documentary that opens today at the Charles.

It's fascinating, particularly as it embraces the most profound of human needs, the rediscovery of family. Back in Ho Chi Minh City -- it used to be called something else, no? -- she uncovers old relatives and the sights and sounds of a city that had all but sunken into her subconscious. She finds an amazingly apt image to sum up her sense of "doubleness" of culture, a pair of brothers in an orphanage who, their genes mutilated by exposure to Agent Orange in the womb, share a single lower trunk: they're like a human Y. That's Tiana: two cultures, two identities, jammed awkwardly into one body.

There are some irritations: She seems to be under the misapprehension that the American presence in Vietnam was some sort of invasion that made its targets all Vietnamese, like the Nazis invading Poland. This leads to absurdities: She makes a great show of invoking the horrible massacre at My Lai by

talking to survivors, but three minutes laters is wandering merrily through Hue in complete ignorance of the North Vietnamese atrocities in that city during the Tet offensive.

She even rediscovers her long-lost uncle, recently released from a 20-year term in a re-education camp, without questioning the ++ dictatorial government that imprisoned him for thought-crime for all those years.

Still, "Hollywood to Hanoi," as a cross-cultural journey and a Vietnamese "Roots," is fascinating.

"From Hollywood to Hanoi"

Documentary

Directed by Thi Thanh Nga

Released by Friendship Bridge Productions

Unrated

... ** 1/2

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