Watch American films about the Vietnam War—Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill—and you'll see South Vietnamese men who are corrupt, lazy, stupid and, to further underscore their inadequacy, impotent; Vietnamese women selling themselves; and their children—all adorable, of course—awed by the sophistication, kindness and courage of American soldiers and dreaming of adoption.
Though burned into the American psyche by three decades of popular Hollywood movies, those images grotesquely distort reality. We know this well in Orange County, home to more than 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees, immigrants and their families. It wasn't by accident or handout that the Vietnamese, who came here with nothing, have so quickly succeeded in the world's most competitive country.
Not only has cinema in the U.S. maligned the South Vietnamese character, but it's also largely ignored their extraordinary plight here and at home. What these people experienced in the decade after the communist takeover of Saigon in April 1975 is worthy of a series of flicks. But the story has never once been shown in theaters until now.
Writer-director Ham Tran corrects this slight with his latest work, Journey From the Fall, which plays Friday and Sunday at the Newport Beach Film Festival. The movie begins on the last day of the war and follows the life of Long Nguyen and his family through prison "re-education" camps, dramatic sea escapes on dilapidated boats and finally to Little Saigon. Many of the scenes shot by cinematographer Guillermo Rosas (Master and Commander, Before Night Falls, Titanic, Man on Fire) are breathtaking backdrops to a brutal tale that's been compared to Schindler's List.
Tran is anxious for the public to see the movie that prompted an overseas critic to doubt that it could be based in truth. "This man said, 'How could any people endure so much? Who is that tough, that strong?'" recalled Tran. "The problem is that nobody knows what happened to us after the war."
Tran may not look like one of the two men (the other is fellow Southern Californian Victor Vu) who will likely dominate Vietnamese American filmmaking for years to come. Though 32 years old, he's got a boyish face that's quick to smile. He dresses as if he's still in college: torn jeans and an old rugby shirt. But this product of Saigon and Santa Ana has the energy of someone half his age, the insights of an elder statesman and the backbone of a warrior.
Tran's earned the hype. It's not just that his 2004 short film, The Anniversary, won international acclaim, more than a dozen awards and the attention of Hollywood executives. Film studios dangled money in his face to Americanize (bastardize?) Journey From the Fall. They wanted the dialogue switched from Vietnamese to English, a sympathetic American character written into the script and an Asian celebrity like Lucy Liu in the leading role.
"Lucy Liu is not even Vietnamese!" laughed Tran. "I said no to everything. It's really important that we have a film honoring the truth of the Vietnamese experience after the war. You can't do that if the actors are speaking English." (Subtitles are in English.)
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Producer Lam Nguyen and Tran cobbled together funding for the seven and a half weeks of filming in the U.S. and Thailand. Last year, they showed an early, rough version of the movie in Little Saigon for the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. At one screening, two old Vietnamese men sat on either side of me. They quietly wept; both had experienced the communist prison camps.
After the film's premiere, someone in the Vietnamese community (Tran won't say who) offered to pay all of the 135-minute film's costs plus a fee on the condition the film be mothballed.
"They didn't want anyone to touch it anymore," said Tran, who anticipates sizable domestic and foreign DVD sales. "But the message of Journey From the Fallis lost if it only goes to the Vietnamese. The whole point is to get the story out. That's why I'm hoping for a theatrical release. This is history that I want the world to know."