Kieu Chinh’s Journey of a Lifetime
October 16, 2006
By Charles Nguyen
Kieu Chinh in “Journey from the Fall”
If critics were to award “Journey from the Fall” actress Kieu Chinh with a Lifetime Achievement Award — which they’ve done once already — some serious thought should be dedicated to a question: Which of Chinh’s lives deserves more applause?
After all, the life of Chinh — winner of the 2003 Vietnamese International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award and current recipient of the 2006 San Diego Asian Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award — is the life of over 100,000 others. In 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese-born civilians, fearing reprisals after decades of war, fled to America and began anew.
In hindsight, Chinh’s work-life before the war was much like her current one. In Vietnam, she was a respected actress, culled by directors and producers to play strong, leading female characters. But it has been a long climb since 1975, Chinh says.
“In Vietnam, I was known,” she says, in the calm but firm matriarchal tone that befits many her characters. “Before the war, I never had to audition. Even if I did, there wouldn’t be the amount of competition that there is here.”
At the tender age of 18, Chinh received her first starring role in the Vietnamese-produced “The Bells of Thien Mu Temple.” By the 1960s, she was a starlet in high demand for both Vietnamese and American productions. In 1964, Chinh even starred alongside tough-guy Burt Reynolds in “Operation C.I.A.” Then, with the war escalating, actress Tippi Hedren of “The Birds” fame sponsored Chinh’s immigration to and citizenship in America.
Since then it has been all work, Chinh laughs; her resume proves the point. Chinh has touched almost all acting genres, with extended stints in soap operas (“Dynasty”) and tearjerkers (“Touched by an Angel”) to leading roles in film.
Kieu Chinh as Suyuan Woo in “The Joy Luck Club”
It’s Chinh’s most recognized portrayal that speaks to her acting prowess. In the “Joy Luck Club,” Chinh played Suyuan Woo, a driven but commandeering mother that is forced to abandon her children in China, then tries to cultivate a new family life in America. Chinh nailed the audition with Wayne Wang and Amy Tan — an impromptu session Chinh said she had only because she was in the same building for other business — and played Woo with a sort of dignified grace Chinh believed the character deserved.
But there was one hitch: Chinh didn’t speak Woo’s language. It was an obstacle Chinh has dealt with many times in her American career. In “M*A*S*H*,” Chinh played a Korean. For a one-time gig on “Fantasy Island,” Chinh was billed as an “Oriental woman.” But while crowds of Asian American actors try to break ethnic barriers, Chinh may have transcended them.
“When someone asks me to speak Chinese for a job, I speak Chinese and when someone asks me to speak Korean, I will do the same,” she says, with a chuckle that suggests language acquisition should be effortless. “Acting is something human, so the characters’ culture or race doesn’t stop me from connecting with them on some base level.”
Chinh’s adaptability wasn’t needed, however, for her latest role in “Journey from the Fall,” which the actress calls the most personally touching work she has done.
In the film, helmed by first-time feature director Ham Tran, Chinh plays an immigrant mother stricken by grief after she leaves her son in a Vietnamese postwar concentration camp.
“This story is about the pain and separation of war,” Chinh says. There is a rare waver in her voice, reserved for the times she speaks of the war. “I could feel my character because I meet her daily in my friends, my relatives and myself.”