Immigrants have trouble adjusting to their new homeland—big surprise. But in First Morning, the latest release by director Victor Vu, this hallmark of the immigrant experience becomes more than just an unfortunate byproduct of assimilation. It's now destructive, profoundly tragic—deadly, even.
First Morning begins with shots of the fall of Saigon and boat people that slowly transition into a different sea: rows of stucco houses in a never-named South County city. In one of these townhomes, Tuan (Tri Johnny Nguyen) returns from college and finds his mother, Kim-Anh (Catherine Thuy Ai), lying on the couch, near death. She has recently suffered a stroke brought on by the disappearance of her early 20s daughter Linh (Kathleen Luong). Tuan's father, Minh (a superb Dang Hung Son), never bothered to tell his son about the stroke or the runaway sister and angrily puffs on a cigarette even as Tuan demands an explanation. It's up to Kim-Anh's brother, the wheelchair-bound Uncle Nam (Long Nguyen), to fill in the gaps in the lives of Linh and Kim-Anh.
Through a series of flashbacks, we see the descent of Linh from a demure, Mikado-esque Asian doll to a hoochie who works at one of Little Saigon's notorious all-male coffee shops. Kim-Anh tries everything to save her—new clothes, prayers and especially motherly love. Minh, however, has no tolerance for what he feels is Linh's laziness and resorts to verbal and even physical abuse to discipline her into submission. Linh eventually runs away, begging Uncle Nam never to reveal her whereabouts.
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Back in the present, Tuan asks Kim-Anh about her version of the events. This time, First Morning flashes back even farther, to the fall of Saigon, when Minh and a young Tuan leave Vietnam on a boat and end up in Houston. Kim-Anh waits and waits for Minh to bring over her and Linh, but Minh quickly shacks up with another Vietnamese refugee and tries to forget his Vietnam-bound family. Linh, Uncle Nam and Kim-Anh finally attempt to cross the treacherous South China Sea, only to encounter a boat of Thai pirates. Minh and Tuan eventually reunite with Kim-Anh and Linh, but no one ever speaks of the boat incident again—Tuan, in fact, doesn't find out about it until Kim-Anh lies on her deathbed.
First Morning will appeal to anyone who likes smart storytelling and engaging plot lines, but the film shines thanks to a decidedly Vietnamese-diaspora aesthetic. Vu relies on flashbacks for the story arc of First Morningas a way of communicating to non-Vietnamese viewers the continued role that the traumas of the past play in the actions (or inactions) of the present in many Vietnamese-American families. And Kim-Anh's resignation to the life paths of her and Linh aren't spared, either, as Vu allows such an approach to reach its final nadir.
We last saw the Westminster-based Vu direct Oan Hn(Spirits), his clever 2004 tale of cosmic justice. First Morningis actually Vu's first feature (problems with financing kept it from reaching the screen before Spirits), so we find some virgin stumbles in First Morning: Vu's reliance on the soundtrack to communicate what characters are feeling, the unconvincing decision to use the same actors as they age from young refugees in the 1970s to conflicted refugees in the modern day and an America-is-great ending that reminds us again why such endings must vanish from American-immigrant cinema forever. But First Morning, like Spirits, reveals a talented young writer who already crafts great, surprising storylines sorely needed in our megaplexes. Give Vu some cash, and watch our first great local auteur rise—no, James Cameron and Kevin Costner, you don't count.
FIRST MORNING WAS DIRECTED BY VICTOR VU; PRODUCED BY PHILIP SILVERMAN; WWW.FIRSTMORNINGTHEMOVIE.COM. OPENS FRI. AT THE REGAL CINEMAS GARDEN GROVE 16, 9741 CHAPMAN AVE., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 534-4777. THROUGH THURS., NOV. 17.