Accompanied by Tran Tuong Nhu, a Vietnamese-American journalist who acts as translator, Heidi, whose birth name was Mai Thi Hiep, seems eager to have the chance to discover her roots, especially since we discover her American childhood was no bed of roses and her adoptive mother advised her to forget her heritage in order to ensure a happy American life. Brainwashed by Oprah-esque pop psychology and the hope for "closure," Heidi can't wait for a few warm hugs from long-lost family members.
But then she arrives in Vietnam and lands in the arms of her haggard, poverty-stricken birth mother, Mai Thi Kim, who is overwhelmed by the reunion and full of nightmarish tales of how Western aid workers bullied her into giving up her daughter, telling her that as a mixed-race child Heidi would be shunned or even killed after the war's end.
Within hours of her first hug, Heidi is equally overwhelmed. Struck dumb by the clinginess of Mai Thi Kim, the poverty of her surroundings, the gaggle of half-siblings and cousins who show up to look her over, and the villagers who peer through the windows to take a peek, she quickly realizes that she may be in over her head. She's an American tourist, after all, and the oppressive humidity soon takes its toll while the makeshift banquets and restaurant meals served on dirty dishes in questionable surroundings turn her stomach.
And that's just the beginning of her problems. Heidi passes out wristwatches and other small gifts, but the family is unimpressed by her generosity. She's the rich American, after all, the one who made it out and won life's big lottery. Like many Vietnamese-Americans with connections to the old country, Heidi is expected to help meet the financial needs of the family, a family she doesn't even know.
Even as her mother tells the family that they're scaring Heidi and they should back off a bit, it only takes a couple of days for a cabal of cousins and brothers to surround Heidi and inform her of exactly what they expect: a ticket to America for Mom and a place for her to live. And if that's not possible, perhaps some sort of monthly stipend would be in order. So much for a Waltons family reunion.
It's at this point that the film becomes both incredibly gripping but funny, too. Heidi has a complete emotional meltdown, and the family quickly regroups to discuss the fact that they may have pushed just a bit too hard and that they need to come up with a new approach before their cash cow runs away screaming. Watching them scheme is both heartbreaking and comical.
Filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco could not have predicted the drama they'd capture when they tagged along on Heidi's trip. Their luck continued when they won the 2002 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary and were nominated for an Oscar. Both accolades are well deserved. Daughter From Danang is a small personal tale told against a huge and painful historical backdrop that continues to cast dark shadows 30 years after the fact. Just look into the eyes of Heidi and her mother, and you can see the pain. That's drama.
Run time: 83 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th January 2002
Box Office USA: $0.7M
Distributed by: Paramount Classics
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 60 Rotten: 16
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Producer: Gail Dolgin