In 1975, with the end of the war in Vietnam imminent, Mai Thi Kim, a poor, young Vietnamese woman, sent her seven-year-old daughter to America as part of a controversial evacuation program known as Operation Babylift. Kim believed her daughter Hiep -- who was conceived during a brief love affair with an American Naval officer -- would be in danger in Vietnam. "What I heard really worried me," Kim says. "If you had worked for Americans and had racially mixed children, they said those kids would be gathered up, they would be soaked in gasoline and burnt."
The parting was devastating to both mother and child. Kim wondered why the American social worker didn't provide her with any documentation detailing where Hiep was going. "I asked her, if she didn't give me any papers, how could I find my child in the future? [The social worker] said when the Americans came back, I would have my child again."
Daughter From Danang cuts between mother and daughter as the two recall the pain of their separation, and retraces Hiep's journey from Vietnam to Pulaski, Tennessee, where she is adopted by a single woman and renamed Heidi. Her new hometown has few Asian residents and a history of black-white racial tension. Heidi's mother convinces the little girl to conceal her Vietnamese heritage and became "101%" American.
In 1997, Heidi decides to return to Vietnam in search of her mother, and the filmmakers follow her. Both women have enormous expectations of their reunion. "It's gonna be so healing for both of us to see each other again," says Heidi. "It's gonna make... all of those lost years not matter anymore." Shortly before the women meet, Kim tells us that she has dreamt of her daughter. "I told her my dream had come true. That I was no longer hopeless and disappointed, and that I would never lose her again."
In intimate, beautifully shot sequences in Danang, the film follows mother and daughter over the course of their one-week reunion. And in painful, difficult scenes, viewers see the women's many hopes and expectations dashed as it becomes apparent that the cultural gulf between them is much larger than either ever imagined. In a final, wrenching confrontation, the gap seems unbridgeable.
At its core, filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco have created a thought-provoking film about identity, family and culture: What shapes our sense of self? What defines our concept of family? And how do cultural expectations influence our choices? Since the film takes places against the backdrop of the Vietnam War it reveals how the trauma inflicted by that conflict continues to haunt and harm those who survived it.