Ham Tran’s “Journey From the Fall” – 2006 AAIFF Review

The 2006 New York Asian American International Film Festival got off to a strong start with “Journey From the Fall,” an ambitious and heartfelt first feature by Vietnamese-American filmmaker Ham Tran. The film has a very clear purpose: to act as a corrective to previous cinematic portrayals of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. One is reminded that even the term “Vietnam War” reflects America-centric bias, since the Vietnamese refer to it as the “American War.”

In his filmmaker’s statement, Tran asks, “How long will we allow Hollywood to tell their versions about the Vietnam War, where Vietnamese people are faceless, nameless background objects instead of three-dimensional living, breathing people whose lives are directly torn by war?” Tran’s evident passion to give voice to these people and to break the silence about this painful period of history more often than not overcomes the film’s flaws.

Tran’s film switches back and forth between 1981, as Long Nguyen (Long Nguyen) languishes in a Communist re-education camp, and 1975, when Long decided to remain in the country and fight as he urges his family to escape Vietnam. The atrocities committed by the U.S. Army in this war are well documented, but Tran’s film focuses on the self-inflicted wounds the Communist government in Vietnam visited upon its own people, the imposing its ideology by force and the branding as traitors those who sought to leave the country to escape this oppression. Tran excels in giving us a tactile, palpable sense of the brutal and squalid conditions of the re-education camps, the atmosphere of fear and the drive to risk death to escape. The families these men left behind faced their own share of dangers. Those who attempted to escape by boat risked capture by military ships and attacks by pirates. Tran’s structure parallels two constricted spaces – the prison cells and the ships’ cargo holds – with both groups hoping these torturous paths will lead to freedom.

The Long family in this film is representative of the various histories of the “boat people” who arrived on American shores in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Elements of Tran’s own experiences as a refugee are reflected in the film’s latter sections, as the Long family, and especially the young son Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen), struggle to adjust to their lives in America. As Tran related in his opening remarks, “Coming here as a refugee, it leaves a mark on you … I always felt like a tumbleweed, traveling, moving, finding your roots again.”

Tran’s film overall is a moving and often harrowing evocation of the Vietnamese experience which is marred by its initially awkward, somewhat disorienting shift of time frames. Also the film’s structure is such that the final scenes in California come across as anticlimactic, even though this destination is where the Long family has risked their lives to reach. Some judicious editing and structural tightening would greatly enhance its considerable emotional power. Nevertheless, Tran has delivered and impressive and passionate film, with remarkably textured cinematography by Guillermo Rosas, and nuanced and authentic performances by a mix of seasoned actors (such as Kieu Chinh as grandmother Ba Noi, best known for her role in “The Joy Luck Club”) and Vietnamese pop stars Diem Lien (as Long’s wife Mai) and Cat Ly (family friend Phuong) making their film debuts. Much of the cast and crew had experiences similar to those depicted in the film, further augmenting the film’s sense of realism.