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Vietnamese Actor Under Fire for U.S. Film Roles

Cinema* Officials in his country have condemned Don Duong's war films and pulled his passport. Hollywood pledges help.

September 30, 2002|ANITA M. BUSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don Duong, a 45-year-old actor once considered Vietnam's shining star, has been branded "a national traitor" in his native country. The Vietnamese government has seized his passport and is threatening to throw the screen veteran in jail and ban him from acting. His crime: co-starring in "We Were Soldiers" with Mel Gibson and the drama "Green Dragon" with Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker, films that the Vietnamese government has condemned.

His plight, which first surfaced in media reports in Vietnam earlier this month, is drawing an unusual and impassioned response from Hollywood's creative community. Gibson, Swayze and Whitaker are speaking out on his behalf and are taking part in a letter-writing campaign to the State Department with others including filmmaker Randall Wallace, Harvey Keitel and Ken Brecher, the executive director of the Sundance Institute.

"We Were Soldiers" and "Green Dragon," both released earlier this year, only recently came to the Vietnamese government's attention when they became available on the black market there.

"Both movies distort the legitimate war history of our people and the humanity of the Vietnamese," said the state-run paper Quan Doi Nhan Dan in a front-page article, according to the Associated Press. Another paper quoted Luu Trong Hong, deputy chair of the National Film Censorship Council, as saying, "Don Duong has lost his honor among the people and has become an instrument in the hands of forces hostile to the Vietnamese nation."

According to Duong's eldest sister, Susie Bui, who lives in the U.S., the government seized Duong's passport about two weeks ago, and the family has had a difficult time communicating with him. The government last week said it will not allow Duong to attend the Asian Pacific Film Festival in Korea and is considering a proposal that would bar him from acting and leaving the country for five years.

Calls to the Vietnamese consulate were not returned. As the family awaits word from Vietnam, Susie Bui said she is concerned for her brother's safety. "Before he did these two films, he would come in and out of Vietnam easily," she said. "The government thinks the two films portrayed the country in a bad image. For his safety, we are being careful because we don't know what's going on. We don't want anything more to happen to him."

In "We Were Soldiers," Duong portrayed the commander of the Vietnamese forces, the late Col. Nguyen Huu An. In the film, which was produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures, both the U.S. and Vietnamese forces are portrayed as fearless. The film also showed heavy casualties on both sides. In Vietnamese movies about the war, Americans are portrayed as arrogant imperialists who exploit the local communities, while the Vietnamese are righteous nationalists.

"A lot of films have been done that denigrate the Vietnamese," said Gibson, speaking from Rome, where he is in pre-production on "The Passion," a film about the last days of Jesus Christ. He said that "We Were Soldiers" showed "the courage of the Vietnamese soldiers. Nothing [Duong] did brought dishonor to the Vietnamese people. I think he showed artistic courage."

"I think that the irony in all of this is that this movie was never political," said Wallace. "We've been criticized by some for showing the humanity of American soldiers. And here is a man being persecuted in Vietnam for showing the humanity of a Vietnamese soldier."

Letters are being sent to U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt as well as to Vietnamese officials. Wallace wrote to Burghardt that "Don Duong ... has portrayed an officer who loved and cared for his men, who was wise and ferocious in battle ... and who in the end was even more perceptive than the leaders of the American government, in that he recognized that the continuation of America's military effort in Vietnam would only produce a greater tragedy in lost lives.... In the eyes of the non-Vietnamese, Don Duong has represented his people in a way that has brought them honor and respect."

Hal Moore, a retired three-star general who served in Vietnam and co-authored the book on which "We Were Soldiers" was based, said he and An became friends after the war. "He was a great leader," said Moore, who served as a consultant on the film. "The last time I saw him, I gave him my wristwatch and he gave me his pith helmet, which had his name written on the inside." Years later, the Vietnamese government gave him permission to enter the country to visit An's widow and her family. He said he has never met Duong, but "I think [An] was portrayed very accurately in the film."

Green-Lighting a Film

In order to film in Vietnam, producers must submit a script to that government for approval. Since "We Were Soldiers" and "Green Dragon" were filmed in the U.S., the filmmakers did not submit the script to the Vietnamese government. It is unclear if Duong submitted the script or if the government approved the actor's participation in the films.

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