Set just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Green Dragon follows the lives of Vietnamese refugees who have been sent to a military base in California. Made with care and sensitivity, the film explores an aspect of the Vietnam War that has largely been ignored. Unfortunately, the somber pacing and lack of dramatic fireworks make Green Dragon seem more like medicine than entertainment.
When the refugees arrive at Camp Pendleton, they are confused, scared, and often separated from their families. Tai (Don Duong) has lost touch with his sister, and is caring for her two young children Minh (Trung Nguyen) and Anh (Jennifer Tran). Tai draws the attention of Gunnery Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze), who is struggling to find space for thousands of refugees. Lance makes Tai camp manager, partly to keep an eye on Communists and insurgents who may have slipped into the camp.
Minh searches daily for his mother, reading bulletins boards covered with photos of the missing, wandering through Quonset huts that serve as dormitories, and staring as new refugees arrive by bus. Quiet and grave, he is a sobering presence to the adults.
Addie (Forest Whitaker), a volunteer cook, tries to find a way to break through to Minh. Addie's artwork is the key. His drawings of black cowboys fascinate Minh, as does a large mural he is painting in a storeroom. The mural features a large green dragon that Addie claims will help Minh find his mother.
Most of the refugees are content to wait in the camp, too afraid to act on offers to live with sponsor families. Duc (Billinjer Tran), a good-natured con artist, is one of the first to accept a new home in Kansas. He leaves behind his former girlfriend (Kathleen Luong), who was forced to become the second wife to an older man to protect her family.
Tai meets Thuy (Hiep Thi Le) during an outdoor screening of a movie one night. She is reluctant to go out with him at first, but eventually they form a relationship. Before they can leave the camp and start their new lives, Tai must figure out a way to tell Minh what happened to his mother.
Green Dragon's details of camp life ring true, and director Timothy Linh Bui is careful to treat the various political viewpoints on display with respect. Still, the film could have used a little less restraint and a bit more character development. Trung Nguyen is appealing as young Minh, but both Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker act too gingerly, perhaps mistaking self-effacement for sympathy. They and the other actors are hamstrung by an episodic screenplay that fails to do justice to its deserving premise.