March 23, 2007
‘Journey From the Fall’ tracks the terrible migration of Vietnamese boat people
By Richard von Busack
THE EXODUS of Vietnamese immigrants to America is still in living memory, and yet it’s not commonly memorialized. As seen in the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival documentary Bolinao 52, few survivors are willing to give firsthand reminiscences of what happened to them in the camps and the refugee boats. But these immigrants are starting to have grandchildren, and that means the truth will be told, bit by bit. As Freud said, the grandchild wishes to remember what the grandfather wishes to forget. The independent film Journey From the Fall is very much a work of art with a job to do; it does the job so diligently that it is hardly worth pointing out the limits of the technique. Producer Long Nguyen and director/writer Ham Tran financed their epic from donations from Vietnamese-American businessmen, some of who used pseudonyms to protect their current business interests in Vietnam.
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In 135 minutes, Tran outlines the Nguyen family’s ordeal, beginning on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon: “The Americans have broken their promise. They have left us,” says father Long (played by the actor and artist Long Nguyen); he stays behind even as he orders his family to leave. The moment of fissure is wrapped around with an Arthurian folk tale about the history of Vietnam. (“If history is written by the victors, than folklore is the testimony of the vanquished” says Tran in the press notes.)
The first half reflects the jagged memory of a political prisoner taken from one re-education camp to another, beaten, worked half to death and starved. In their camps, the Communists use crucifixion and sweat boxes, torture and lectures. In one lecture, we even hear the “Arbeit macht frei” motto the prisoners need to learn: “Nothing is more precious than freedom.” The Communist tyrants who run the camp are about as flat as the Nazis in wartime propaganda movies. There’s only one articulate officer, and education has just made him more sadistic: he smokes opium and quotes the dire Romanian/French philosopher Emile Cioran. (Wikipedia quotes one of Cioran’s wittier lines: “Without Bach, God would be a completely second-rate figure.”) In the second half, the action unfolds in 1981 Orange Country, where we see the problems of Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) growing up without his father, with a mother still distant and traumatized from being the victim of pirates at sea.
Journey From the Fall is but the first rough-hewn look at a subject that needs more examination. As Vietnam opens itself up to tourism and foreign capital, it owes the world an accounting of its labor camps. And let’s hope that any investigation of the Communist crimes won’t give the David Horowitzes of the world something to preen about. In my particular little ghetto, the neighborhood is divided up nicely between Laotians, who fled the Communists, and Salvadorans, who were chased from their nation by right-wing death squads. “Some world,” as Humphrey Bogart once said. “Looks like it was shaved by a drunken barber.”
Journey From the Fall (R; 135 min.), directed and written by Ham Tran and photographed by Julie Kirkwood and Guillermo Rosas, opens March 23 at Camera 12 in San Jose.