When Bay Area filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco arranged to film the reunion of Mai Thi Kim with her daughter Mai Thi Hiep, 22 years after the latter was whisked away to America, they risked producing a touching — but probably maudlin — documentary. What they got, however, was far different. In important ways, the reunion was a catastrophe, though the participants’ misfortune was a serendipitous boon for the filmmakers.
Those who are old enough will remember the well-meaning — if morally questionable — Operation Babylift. As Saigon was about to fall, there was great anxiety about reprisals against South Vietnamese regarded as sympathetic to the Americans. Many parents desperately tried to get their children onto planes back to the United States, where they would be safely adopted.
After her husband abandoned his family to join the NLF, Mai Thi Kim — afraid she might be suspected of Communist sympathies — took a job at the Danang Navy base. She became involved with an American, who fathered Mai Thi Hiep before shipping home. In 1975, as the Vietnam war neared its end, Mai Thi Kim heard rumors that the Communist victors would not only take revenge on those who had been close to the Americans, but would also slaughter any Amerasian children. (The film never tells us whether there was any truth to this, but we see some truly chilling period footage of an American aid worker blithely trying to convince Vietnamese to give up their kids.)
Fearing for Mai Thi Hiep’s life, she turned the seven-year-old over to Operation Babylift … and didn’t see her again for more than two decades.
The flood of so-called Vietnamese “orphans,” as well as of real war orphans, resulted in relaxed rules for adoption. Many who had been previously considered unfit to adopt were now allowed to look after the new arrivals. Mai Thi Hiep was taken in by a providing, but emotionally cold, single mother. “I always wanted the feeling that someone would love me, no matter what,” Hiep says. “I never had that with Ann.” Ann changed the child’s name to Heidi and told her to hide her Asian origins from their neighbors in Pulaski, Tennessee, a town with a long Klan history. (Both as a child and an adult, Heidi easily passes for 100 percent Anglo.)
By the time she entered adulthood, Heidi was altogether a typical American teenager; her first seven years are barely a memory. But when she had a permanent falling-out with her adoptive mother, her sense of maternal abandonment was reawakened, and she began a search for her birth mother.
In 1997, after a brief exchange of letters, Heidi headed for Vietnam, accompanied by the film crew and by translator and San Jose Mercury News reporter TT Nhu, the Vietnamese American who had helped locate her mother. At first, things seem fine: the family is obviously delighted to meet Heidi, and she is confused, but pleased, to meet them. She feels a blend of gratification and alienation, as these strangers — all of them older and thus with clearer memories of her than she could have of them — greet her as one of their own.
Eventually, however, the inevitable culture clash occurs, as her older brother, whose genuine feelings for her can’t be doubted, accidentally offends her. Heidi, who doesn’t come across on camera as the most mature of personalities, stomps out in a tearful rage.
Dolgin and Franco, even while in the middle of such intimate moments, keep their judgments to themselves. There are numerous moral issues that the film addresses indirectly without ever verbalizing: perhaps the central one is whether Heidi’s life is a miracle or a tragedy. Her transplanting to America allowed her to have a far more comfortable life, with a broader range of possibilities. But if the fear of South Vietnamese reprisals was ill-founded, would anyone suggest that spiriting a child away from a poor family is defensible?
What starts out as an interesting personal odyssey turns into a wrenching emotional experience — what is merely disturbing for the family is both disturbing and worthwhile for the audience.