Ham Tran, Director of “Journey from the Fall”
October 16, 2006
Interviewed by Charles Nguyen
Director Ham Tran
Being a relatively young director, what’s your comment on this generation’s crop of Asian-Americas on and behind the silver screen? (Justin Lin, John Cho, Keiko Agena, etc.)
I think it’s a great time for Asian American directors. It’s as if we’ve been marinading for long enough and serving time is up. I also consider myself as a part of the new film renaissance of Vietnamese Americans (in Vietnam they call us Viet Kieu, or VK for short). There’s myself, Victor Vu, Chalie Nguyen, Thu Ha, Van Kiet, Ringo Le, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and of course coming back onto the production scene are the Bui brothers—Tim and Tony!
Your short, “The Anniversary” (SDAFF 2005), was based on material very similar to “Journey From the Fall.” How did you build off of your short into your first feature?
Actually, I wrote “The Anniversary” while I was in the process of writing “Journey From the Fall.” The short film story was supposed to be the father’s flashback, but as I was writing it, I realized that it was getting too complex—that and the fact that I had to turn in my thesis script for UCLA. So, I removed the story of the two brothers meeting up during the Vietnam War, and made it into its own short film, “The Anniversary.”
The feature, on the other hand, was a culmination of three years of research, interviews, looking through footage of the war, lots of Vietnam War documentaries, and lots of photography books.
Long Nguyen in “Journey from the Fall”
What about Vietnamese history do you find enthralling?
When one looks at the history of Vietnam, it has always been under the shadow of a bigger country. First, it was China, then came the French, and later the Americans. There’s even a Vietnamese folksong that talks about it. I learned that song while working with a Vietnamese American comedy group called Club O’Noodles.
Getting back to the topic of history. It irritates me whenever I meet someone and I tell them that I’m from Vietnam, because the immediate response is almost always, “Yeah, it’s terrible shame what happened with the Vietnam vets.” or “Yeah, my [so and so] fought in ‘Nam.” The war was about Vietnam, not America. We’ve been fighting for over a thousand years before the Americans came. Same war. New flags.
See “Journey from the Fall” on Thursday, October 12 at 7 PM.
Vietnam has so much more to offer than just our wars, but if one really wants to go there, there are way better stories that can be told. Of course, there’s the legend of Le Loi (as you will hear about in “Journey From the Fall”), but then there’s the legend of the Trung sisters, who first used elephants for war in Vietnam, and the emperor Hung Vuong XVIII. Now those are some serious costume drama, Crouching Tiger action!
Then there’s the richness of contemporary Vietnamese literature. I only know a handful, but my housemates, Viet and Lan, are like my cornucopia of literature and old Vietnamese flicks.
To you, how much of movie production is about personal investment with the film’s material?
How do I answer this question…well, I haven’t been paid for working on “Journey From the Fall” for over a year now, but I’m still answering the fan mail and doing the grassroots promotional circuit. Beyond the pocketbook, it’s a film that takes its toll emotionally. I’m still rebuilding my personal life from the experience!
Kieu Chinh in “Journey from the Fall”
What have you learned from working with cinematic Vietnamese icons such as Kieu Chinh and Don Duong?
I really wanted to work with Don Duong again for “Journey”, but we couldn’t get his manager to see eye to eye with us. Otherwise, he would have totally brought something amazing to the screen as Uncle Nam (one of the supporting characters in the film).
Kieu Chinh, however, was absolutely great to work with. Talk about dedication! She’s so beautiful and elegant in person that our make-up artist had to take over an hour every day to get her to look like Ba Noi (the grandmother). We had to age her hair, paint her teeth black (her character chews betel leaves), and dot every liver spot on her hands and face. She even lost weight for the role because she wanted to embody the feel of Ba Noi as a boat refugee.
I remember the look in her eyes when we did the boat rescue scene. As I watched the dailies, I asked myself, “My god, where did she draw that from? What moment in her life did she use to create this look of sheer terror, mixed with guilt and rejoice? It was piercing, aching expression. Mesmerizing.
I have spoken with Kieu Chinh, who commented on her pride that a young director such as yourself was willing to revisit his native country’s history. Why have you chosen to focus your films on Vietnamese history?
For me, it was simple. I wanted the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War to be the year that the record was set straight. The War did not end with the Americans pulling out. Vietnam’s history did not end when the communists took over Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese people will no longer be a backdrop to an American cast in a Vietnam War film. We will tell our story, in our language, about our experiences.
Daily line-up at a re-education camp in “Journey from the Fall”
Can you believe that in the last 30 years since the end of the war, there has only been two films made about boat people? The first being a Hong Kong film, the second is “Beautiful Country,” which in my eyes still told the story through tinted foreign glasses. No film has ever been made about the re-education camps. There was a line in the original version of the script that was cut out in the final edit of the film, “It’s not what you say that makes a history important. It’s when you say it.”
My producer and I interviewed more than a hundred survivors of the re-education camps and boat refugees, and I would say that 7 out of 10 of everyone we spoke to have not told their own children what they revealed to us. So we asked them, “Why? Why not let your children know about what you had to suffer in order to come to America?” Their response is very typically Vietnamese, “Why tell them about pain? Why tell them about shame? The past is best to be buried.” They would carry these important stories to their graves, and never realize that our youth of today need to know why they are here. The so-called generation gap is not one created by age. It’s created by silence, a deep burrowing kind that hollows the heart.
I think that this production was really blessed because everyone who contributed to the film worked from the understanding that this is a story that needs to be told. I’ve been very fortunate to have this kind of energy and support to commemorate my first feature film.
What was the process of finding stories of immigrants/reeducation camp prisoners? How did you decide which stories you wanted to tell?
I think the stories were measured with tears. My producer, Lam, will tell you that he cried hundreds of times during the audition process. We held an open call to the community in Little Saigon and San Jose. I didn’t want to cast “actors” because I need to keep the film as authentic as possible. Aside from Kieu Chinh and Long Nguyen, everyone else in the film had never acted before. Some were real reeducation camp survivors, and some were actually lost at sea on those over-packed, rickety fishing boats. The audition process was basically, my producer and I talking for a half hour with each person who showed up for the call. We wanted to know from their experiences, at the same time gauging whether or not that person would be able to go back to a specific time and emotional place in their life in order to bring to their role. The stories that brought us instantly to tears were the ones that got worked into the script.
One example is Miss Kim Chi’s story about visiting her husband. She had reenacted the scene so well and it was so moving that almost every detail of her story became Mai’s visit to Long at the prison camp.