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TV REVIEW : Ghosts of Vietnam Haunt in 'Thanh's War' on PBS

May 03, 1991|ROBERT KOEHLER

The Vietnam Syndrome, we're told, is dead. But for many, the Vietnam tragedy has taken on the form of a ghost. And ghosts don't easily go away.

"Thanh's War" (at 10 tonight on KCET Channel 28) is a modest, ironic report of one man's continuing battle to put the war's ghosts to rest.

At 12, Pham Thanh saw his village bombed, much of his family killed and his own throat nearly sliced in two by a grenade from a U.S. Army trying to wipe out Viet Cong forces. Though Americans nearly killed him, it was the American Committee of Responsibility that rescued Thanh from starvation in a Da Nang hospital and found him a foster home in the United States with the family of Father James Jones.

Now in his early 30s, Thanh, fully healed from his wounds and Americanized, has made a Sisyphean feat of retracing his roots in order to link his Vietnamese and American sides. Thanh has gone far beyond reunions; he had an arranged marriage in his homeland last January. Because his two countries still lack formal relations, his wife must remain in Vietnam.

Thanh, then, becomes a living metaphor of how alive the Vietnam Syndrome is. He is his own best commentator--sharp, unfettered, honest. Producer-narrator Elizabeth Farnsworth, though, could use a strong dose of Thanh's urgent personality: Despite its intimate view of two cultures, the KQED-produced "Thanh's War" remains at the level of a visually dull local TV report.

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