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Bridging the Vietnamese and American Cultures : Movies: Filmmaker Quan Lelan strives to move beyond polarized hatred in his compassionate depictions of a passionate war.

April 19, 1993|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An unassuming 30-year-old, Quan Lelan is among the first of his generation to explore the complexity and anguish of the Vietnamese-American psyche through film.

Like the characters in his movies, Lelan is a product of two worlds--wartime Vietnam and post-war America. It's given him a perspective that is neither completely Vietnamese nor American.

"I see myself as a bridge between the two cultures," said a quiet, bespectacled Lelan, who will graduate this year from the USC School of Cinema/Television. "A few years younger and I would be too American; a few years older and I would be too Vietnamese."

His main body of work, completed while at USC, is made up of three short films that form a rough series, beginning with those who fought the war and continuing, years later, with those who survived it.

His most ambitious piece, "The Last of Alpha," will premiere Wednesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of a screening of USC student projects.

Lelan said that "Alpha," the story of a squad of American soldiers on a doomed patrol, was an important personal project that allowed him to revisit a war that still permeates every aspect of his life.

"It is a door we must all go through," he said. "To understand the Vietnamese experience, I have to go back through the war again."

But the subjects that are closest to Lelan's heart are the Americans and Vietnamese who survived the war and now grapple with its legacy.

His most recent film, "The Killing Zone," is the story of a Vietnamese-American waitress and an ex-GI who unexpectedly encounter a North Vietnamese soldier in a bakery one night.

At an informal screening this year in a popular Vietnamese nightclub in Anaheim, a crowd of Vietnamese-Americans was transfixed by the film's message of forgiveness, which still touches raw nerves 18 years after the end of the war.

"They were dazzled by 'Alpha,' but they really identified with 'The Killing Zone' because it was a film about themselves," he said. "They have never seen that before."

For Lelan, making films has been a journey as unexpected as the tumult that transformed his life after the fall of Saigon.

As the youngest son of a wealthy Saigon businessman, his childhood was one of privilege among the elite.

Although he grew up during the height of the war, his memories of it are vague and distant--the muffled sound of artillery fire as he slept at night, troops of soldiers walking the streets, the fear on the faces of adults during an attack on the city.

Mostly, his memories of childhood revolve around going to school, daydreaming, sketching cartoons and spending time with his family.

"When you grow up in a war, it is hard to understand," he said. "It all becomes natural to you."

The family's life was turned upside-down as the communist forces closed in on Saigon in April, 1975.

In a mad rush, the family escaped the day before the city fell. They heard about the fall of Saigon while waiting in a tent city on Guam.

After several months, they were settled in San Diego under the sponsorship of a distant relative.

Lelan said his family was devastated by the flight to a new country. His mother worked at a dry cleaners, his father jumped from job to job, unable to find anything permanent.

Lelan, however, was fascinated with the United States. "It was a new life," he said. "I was kind of eager to find out about things."

At UC San Diego, he majored in engineering, following the course of thousands of other refugee children, eager to find a stable niche in this new country.

But he was unhappy through much of his college years and shifted his major to art. After several years as a painter, Lelan applied to the USC film school, where he believed he could pursue both his interest in the visual arts and storytelling through the medium of film.

One of his first projects was "Hill 66," the story of two American soldiers behind enemy lines. It has been shown at Asian-American film festivals in New York, Hawaii and Washington.

In his second year at USC, he drafted another script on the Vietnam War that eventually became "The Last of Alpha."

"Alpha" follows the path of five American soldiers who are trapped by a Viet Cong sniper. As the soldiers are shot one by one, the squad leader circles behind and kills the sniper--a young boy. Only three of the soldiers survive. One is desperately wounded.

The squad leader calls for a helicopter, but his request is denied. The wounded man pleads to be put out of his misery. The squad leader finally agrees, not knowing that a helicopter has been diverted to help them.

As the squad leader hears the sound of the helicopter approaching, the screen is filled with his face and clouds of red landing smoke.

Lelan said that in his vision of war, there are no evil characters, no sermons of right or wrong, no political diatribes on the communist or capitalist threat.

The American soldiers are tragic characters in a play of which they have no understanding. They are doomed despite their best intentions and thoughts.

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