“Journey From the Fall”
by Jackie Bong-Wright
Journey From the Fall depicts a family whose husband was imprisoned in re-education camps after the North Vietnamese took over the South in 1975, and the perilous escape of his wife, son, and mother over the open sea. It’s also the flashback tale of boat-people refugees and their painful resettlement in the U.S. juxtaposed against the brutal conditions of prisoners in Communist Vietnam. Each of the four family members struggles to be reunited with loved ones, in a new life of freedom, but in vain.
Entirely financed by Vietnamese-Americans, the film was a selection of both the Sundance and the Pusan Film Festivals. It has received 13 awards including recognition for Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Producer at film festivals in the U.S., Brazil, Milan, and Toronto. The San Jose Mercury News called it “heartbreaking, ” and the Los Angeles Times, “a superbly wrought saga of loss and survival.”
Distributed by ImaginAsian Pictures, this acclaimed movie was released first in Orange County, New York City and San Jose on March 23 to sold-out screenings. It topped the charts that week-end. Michael Hong, ImaginAsian’s CEO, exclaimed, “We’re just ecstatic about the way moviegoers are responding to this incredible film.”
The next week, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art gave the film a special screening. Kieu Chinh, who has starred in more than 100 films and TV movies, including the Joy Luck Club, and who received an Emmy for a documentary about her, came in from California for the sneak preview. She plays the role of grandmother in Journey.
Dr. Franklin Odo, director of the Asian Pacific American Institute at the Smithsonian, said, “Kieu Chinh was superb in that role.” Kieu Chinh herself commented, “ We Vietnamese have been in the U.S. for 32 years. It’s time for us to tell our story, the story of how we came here and why we are here.”
The intense, 135-minute film didn’t escape criticism. Critic Scott Foundas of the Village Voice wrote, “Tran’s film is laudable as one of the few movies to depict Vietnam and its aftermath through the eyes of the Vietnamese. But at a moment when directors as varied as Clint Eastwood, Paul Verhoeven, and Ken Loach are discovering innovative and meaningful ways of dramatizing the great man-made atrocities of the 20th century, Tran’s reliance on declamatory political dialogue and movie-of-the-week inspirationalism feels decidedly old-fashioned and, finally, even phony.”
To which Tran replied, “It’s not that I mind getting a bad movie review, but to call this film ‘phony’ is exactly the kind of ignorant mentality that we have had to struggle against the last 30 years. It is the kind of language that has excluded our community’s terrible ordeals from historical conciousness. This reviewer needs to know that the Communist official’s lecture to the prisoners is not ‘declamatory political dialogue,’ but the actual words heard by the re-education camp prisoners.”
Tran continued, “Chu Son, who plays the Communist lecturer, knew that entire speech by heart because it was what the Communists forced him to memorize. It is forever burned into his memory. This critic needs to know that the film is not just a dreamt-up story, but depicts the actual experiences of millions of Vietnamese refugees.”
Ham Tran, writer and director of Journey, graduated from UCLA with a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television. He was a national finalist for the Student Academy Awards two years in a row for his short films The Prescription and Pomegrenate. Tran’s thesis film, The Anniversary, was Best Short Film at the prestigious USA Film Festival, received over 25 international awards, and made the top ten list at the 2004 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film.
Tran spent three years researching books, films and photos and talking to families who survived the war. He and his producer, Lam Nguyen, who has directed and produced over 40 music videos for Van Son Entertainment since 1996, interviewed hundreds of Vietnamese boat-people refugees, former prisoners of war, and young Vietnamese born in the U.S.
The creators of Journey cast mostly actors who had lived through their own tragic situations but were without previous acting experience. The result was that these novice actors played their roles so well that they brought out in audiences a wide range of emotions. Thirteen year-old Lai is a good example. He plays the son of the couple. His grandfather and father were detained in re-education camps for 12 and 11 years, respectively. Lai often asked them questions about their jail experiences, so acting in the film was natural to him.
Diem Lien, as Mai, the wife who escaped by boat and suffered from post-traumatic depression, was also a first-timer. She made viewers cry when she roared, “I am already dead, already dead, the day your father went to the re-education camp.” Grieving in silence over her husband’s death, she was blamed by her son and mother-in-law for her apparent lack of involvement in the family’s travails.
In real life, Diem Lien was four when her father, Dinh Lang, was imprisoned; she didn’t see him again until she was 17. But under the artful guidance of Ham Tran, she re-enacted the role of her own mother, who for 13 years brought up four young children by herself. The actress tried to express the repressed feelings of a single mother who sacrifices herself to keep her family together.
Another negative comment was sent in an anonymous email. “Why can’t Ham Tran make a film on how Vietnam is doing now and how people prospered and recovered from the war – “Vietnam After the War?” Unification of North and South Vietnam are great stories to be told rather than dark refugee movies. I guess exploitation movies just sell. Damn Ham Tran. How can u sell your soul, man.”
Fearing the side effect of discrimination against Vietnamese around the world, another movie-goer angrily remarked that Ham Tran was just exploiting the horrors of war and the poverty of Vietnam for his own benefit. “We do not need another film that just makes Vietnamese a weak target in society because we worked so hard to be normal.”
But most commentary was favorable. Hung Bui, a lawyer and partner at Stein, McEwen & Bui LLPA, said, “Journey has an important role to play in the Vietnamese-American community. It helps tell my story as a former teenage boat refugee to future generations and to our children, not only to better themselves, but to allow them to understand us, the older generation.”
Thuan Truong added, “As a former army officer, I was sent to re-education camps for five years. I saw my colleagues tortured savagely. Hundreds died of starvation, diseases, mines, torture and merciless escape killings – exactly like in the movie. I was lucky to be released from that hell, and reached the Philippines safely by boat, but five of my siblings and 93 other passengers who were with them all perished at sea. I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face when I watched the unbearable scenes of beatings in prisons and escapes at sea. Journey gave me flashbacks of myself, my family and my friends.”
Tino Pham, a college student, explained, “I understand after seeing the movie how much my father suffered in his 10 years in the re-education camps. He didn’t say much so I couldn’t understand why his anti-Communism was so strong. He kept me at a distance, maybe to protect me from memories too painful to recount. I understand now why he says that although the Vietnam war is over, the battle is still going on. He says we have to keep on fighting to preserve freedom and human rights for the 83 million Vietnamese who have no voice in Communist Vietnam. I didn’t agree with that before, but I can empathize with it now.”
Greg Henschel, Senior Policy Analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, has this to say: “People in desperate situations struggle to survive. Some may lose their humanity like the Thai pirates who robbed and kidnapped the boat people, while others, like the main characters in the movie, kept their faith and maintained their dignity by facing adversity.” Ricky Norment added, “I am a black American and know a fair amount about slavery and the holocaust, but Journey is my first exposure and insight into the harrowing lives and the painful scars the Vietnamese had to face after we Americans left them.”
Mission, Vision and Message
What is the mission of Journey? The filmakers say they wanted to change Hollywood’s version of the Vietnam War, where “Vietnamese are faceless, nameless background objects instead of three-dimentional living, breathing people whose lives are directly torn by war.” In their vision, Journey is to the Vietnamese community what Schindler’s List was to the Jewish community. It is a tale of faith triumphing over tyranny. They felt that this part of the Vietnamese past must be reclaimed in order for Vietnamese-Americans to move forward.
Long Nguyen, who appeared in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth and Timothy Bui’s Green Dragon, identified himself with the main character in the movie, which he played. He said, “It’s not just a story about Communist rule. The film’s principal message is love. Love of one family member for another, love of one human being for another.”