- The Vietnamese experience in America is a strong focus of this year's Aurora Asian Film Festival.

It begins at 7 tonight with Timothy Linh Bui's "The Green Dragon" and continues through Sunday at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.

"Green Dragon" is Bui's fictional film about the experiences of Vietnamese refugees in California's Camp Pendleton in 1975, as the Vietnamese War was ending with victory by the communist-backed North Vietnamese.

The festival also has two Vietnam-related documentaries. Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's "Daughter from Danang," which screens at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, is about the return to Vietnam, as an adult looking for her mother, of an Amerasian child airlifted to the U.S. in 1975. It won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

And Sunday's 6:30 p.m. film is the extraordinarily insightful and tender "Mai's America," about a Hanoi teenager who comes to Biloxi, Miss., as an exchange student and faces eccentric Southern-American culture full force. She even invites a drag queen to her high-school prom. Director Marlo Poras will be present for the screening.

"Mia's America" is a charming and eye-opening film that could well be one of the year's best documentaries. It follows the cheerful yet sharply observant Mia as she struggles to make sense out of her unemployed, self-professed "redneck" sponsoring family. Eventually, she winds up living with a young black Baptist couple instead.

The festival, co-sponsored by Aurora Asian/Pacific Community Partnership and the Denver Film Society, offers 12 narrative or documentary films from Asian nations or about the Asian-American experience. This is its fifth year.

Writer-director Bui, who will be present tonight, based "Dragon's" story on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees at hastily constructed camps on U.S. military bases in 1975, just as South Vietnam was falling and its supporters needed to escape.

He and his younger brother and sister were at such a base in Arkansas at the time. They were children arriving with their parents. The family spent three months there until a church group sponsored their move to Chico, Calif.

"This film is about the beginning of a new journey for some Vietnamese people and what that meant," he said, in a telephone interview. "The subject is something that our family went through. Growing up, I'd hear a lot of stories from my mother about what she went through and what she felt in her first few weeks in America. "My mother said she was afraid of moonlight. It reminded her of pain and sorrow. I wanted to make a movie to understand that feeling." After settling in California, Bui's family opened three video-rental stores in the Silicon Valley. That interested him and his younger brother Tony in filmmaking. After receiving a bachelor's degree in cinema studies at college, Timothy co-wrote and -produced "Three Seasons" with his brother Tony, who also directed.

This visually poetic and ruminative film, about life in post-communist Vietnam, was filmed in Vietnam yet financed by American companies. At the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, it won the Grand Jury, Audience and Best Cinematography awards. Its success - Vietnam submitted it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for foreign-language-film Oscar consideration - made financing of "Green Dragon" possible. For this film, Timothy wrote the screenplay based on a story by him and Tony. That screenplay attracted Patrick Swayze, as a Marine commander, and Forest Whitaker, as a camp cook, to the project. (Most of the other actors, including the fine Don Duoung as a quiet, English-speaking refugee who becomes a camp leader, are Vietnamese.) "I went to the base, researched a lot and talked to refugees who went through the camps," Bui said. "It's not autobiographical by any means. I created fictional characters based on interviews I had."

Besides the Vietnamese movies, here are some other highlights:

"Kurosawa," which recently broadcast on PBS' "Great Performances" series, is a beautifully impressionistic and soulful two-hour look at the life of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. (12:30 p.m. Saturday) "The Turandot Project" is Allan Miller's account of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou's staging, in Beijing with an international cast and crew, of Puccini's opera "Turandot." (5 p.m. Saturday)

"Siddhartha," based on the Hermann Hesse novel about a young Indian man's journey to enlightenment, is a restored version of Conrad Rooks' 1972 film. This re-release is timed for the 125th anniversary of Hesse's birth. (12:30 p.m Sunday)

Head east

What: Aurora Asian Film Festival

When: Tonight through Sunday

Where: Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.

Tickets: "Green Dragon' $25, including an opening-night party; "Mai's America' $15, including a closing-night party; other movies $7, $6 for students, seniors and Denver Film Society members; $75 pass covers everything.)

Information: For a full schedule and ticket information, call 303-595-3456 or 303-361-0847, or visit www.asiaxpress.com