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'Daughter From Danang'

Joy and tears of the 'Babylift'

Friday, January 24, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If "Daughter From Danang" had been a Lifetime television movie, it would have the happy ending that audiences have come to expect.

'Daughter From Danang'

RATING: Unrated but PG-13 in nature.

DIRECTORS: Gail Dolgin, Vicente Franco

Critic's call:


It would go something like this: American woman reunited with Vietnamese mother after two decades. Love and family bonds surmount cultural and language barriers. Hugs and kisses all around, along with plans for regular reunions on both sides of the great divide. Adoptive and biological mothers share the joy of their beautiful girl, now a mom herself.

But "Daughter From Danang" is a documentary about real people, not the fictional imaginings of a screenwriter with rose-colored glasses.

So, when the tears flow in "Daughter," they're from happiness -- and hurt, disbelief and disappointment, too. And they help to make this movie, opening today at the Oaks Theater, a powerful, personal portrait of a family torn apart by war and circumstances beyond their control.

The woman of the title was born Mai Thi Hiep in 1968 but she was renamed Heidi when she came to the United States as part of "Operation Babylift" in 1975. Unlike some of the children, she was not an orphan. Her mother was Vietnamese and her father was an American Navy officer, gone by the time the baby arrived.

When rumors began to circulate that Amerasian children and their mothers would be killed, the child was sent away, confused at what she had done to deserve this. She was adopted by a single woman in Columbia, S.C., relocated to Tennessee and told not to discuss her past -- and she looked so American that it often wasn't an issue.

When we meet Heidi Bub, she is a married woman with two children of her own and a gaping hole in her past. She was 21 or 22 when she decided to try to find her biological mother, who had never abandoned hope of locating the child she had sent to America. The pair find each other and, with a journalist's help, make plans for Heidi to visit Vietnam.

Heidi knows no Vietnamese. She practices how to say "I love you" and arrives -- with the journalist and two filmmakers -- as a stranger in her own land. A camera tracks her every move, from her nerves about what to wear to her reunion with her birth mother who assures her, "Don't think I just abandoned you."

And the camera is still there, unblinking, as Heidi's visit turns from joyful to overwhelming. Along the way, we also learn about Heidi's adoptive mother (I kept wondering where she fit into this picture), which just adds another emotional layer to the proceedings, and we follow Heidi as she returns to the United States.

Although some archival footage is used near the documentary's beginning, this is largely the story of one family. No attempt is made to get the government on record about "Operation Babylift" -- one man suggests it was a White House bid to gain sympathy and money -- or to find other Amerasians and chart their experiences.

That limited focus, however, allows directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco to simply tell the complex story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath through two women and their fleeting happiness and haunting heartbreak.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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