Journey to a film

March 23, 2007

A Vietnamese-American film tells the story of the boat people who settled in O.C.

The Orange County Register

As the talk show host chatted with the young filmmaker about his next project, Truc Ho, founder of the television network on which the program aired, started to pay closer attention.

But then you do tend to take notice when a stranger describes the story of your life, which, in a sense, was what director Ham Tran had just done for Ho and tens of thousands of other Vietnamese immigrants to the United States.

Tran’s new screenplay, he explained, told the story of the boat people – the Vietnamese who fled their country after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese communists in 1975 – showing it through the eyes of one family. The father is trapped in a brutal prison camp, while his mother, wife and son make their way through great danger to Orange County without him.

Ho tracked down a copy of Tran’s short film “The Anniversary,” a semifinalist for an Oscar, watched it and decided right then that Tran possessed the talent and vision to film “Journey From The Fall,” which opens Friday.

So he called Tran and offered to help him find the funds to make the movie and get their story on the screen.

“I feel it’s my responsibility to make a movie, so my son and daughter, they know why I have to leave my country,” says Ho, who left Vietnam in 1981 when he was a boy of 16.

“When I came here, I know I can survive anything,” he says of the difficulties he faced. “And now I have the power to help him make a movie.”

But making a movie is a journey fraught with perils of its own. The boat people faced life-or-death struggles, and certainly the stakes in filmmaking pale in comparison.

But just as so many of those boats failed to reach their destinations, so too do most film projects face uncertain fates, as Tran and his investment angels would quickly learn.

• • •

Ho, the associate producer of “Journey,” really wanted to be a boat person. But after three attempts to leave by sea failed, he decided to walk to freedom through Cambodia.

“Did you ever see the movie ‘The Killing Fields’?” Ho says of the 1984 film. “It was worse than that.”

For seven days and nights, a smuggler led Ho over dangerous terrain, the smell of death and threat of capture ever-present. Abandoned at the border, he used a small amount of gold sewn into his underwear to hire a boy to lead him through the bandit-infested jungles to Thailand.

“When I just came into the jungle we got caught by robbers,” Ho says. “We gave them money and they let us go. But after 15 minutes, I hear guns – dat-dat-dat! – and now 12 guys with AK-47s catch us.”

The robbers forced everyone to lie down on the jungle floor, searching them for valuables and – Ho feared – looking for Vietnamese, whom they often shot out of age-old enmity between the two nations.

A robber took Ho’s rosary beads from his wallet and shouted something at him in Cambodian, once, twice, three times. Ho shouted something back – he doesn’t know what – and the bandits disappeared.

A miracle, Ho calls it. Three months later he had official status as a refugee, and he was on his way to the United States.

• • •

Tran, the “Journey” filmmaker, arrived in the United States by safer passage. His family was admitted to a program that in 1982 allowed them to fly to the United States to join relatives here.

As he grew up here, Tran absorbed all the refugee stories he heard – of families who escaped with death and tragedy at their heels, of those left behind in prison camps or trapped by fate.

“When I started doing this, there were so many stories, so many movies you could make,” he says of the development of “Journey.” “These stories are stranger than fiction – but they’re true.”

His film, “The Anniversary,” opened doors for him in Hollywood, Tran says. But everyone wanted changes to “Journey” – a role for stars like Lucy Liu or Bai Ling, a rewrite to add an American character.

“I said, ‘No, this is a movie about Vietnamese people,” Tran says, describing his decision to make it on his own terms.

When the call came in from Ho – founder of the Garden Grove-based Saigon Broadcasting Television Network – Tran had his first angel.

And Ho quickly delivered, lining up an investor who offered all $1.6 million needed – which Tran turned down.

“It was such a painful moment – this huge sum of money just flew out the window,” Tran says. “Ho was like, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ But I was concerned about creative control.”

Ho quickly got back to work though, phoning other deep-pocketed friends.

“I convinced them that this is a project that every Vietnamese has to do,” he says. “When they put up the money, I told them, ‘Don’t expect this money to return, just expect that Ham will give you a good movie about our story.’ ”

• • •

Soon after Ho offered to help Tran find investors for the project, a second financial angel arrived.

Alan Vo Ford, an immigrant whose own story mirrored that of the family in “Journey,” saw “The Anniversary” at a 2003 film festival and decided he wanted to meet the director.

Ford was born a month before the fall of Saigon. His father, an army general, was sent to the prison camps. The rest of the family was forced from their large home to live in the country. In 1984, they fled by crowded boat to Malaysia and then Orange County.

Over lunch at the Quan Hy restaurant in Westminster, Ford and Tran talked about “Journey.” On parting, Ford offered $30,000 to keep the film moving forward.

“Everybody tried to work together as a community,” says producer Ford, a real-estate and music entrepreneur. “All of them felt passionate, but it was just a matter of whether they had the money.”

Soon after, Ford rounded up roughly $600,000 from other investors. Ho pulled in the remaining $1 million from two brothers in a family who had befriended him after he arrived alone as a teen at Fountain Valley High School.

“I sold them a simple idea: This is a story for your children,” Ho says.

“They’re not doing it for the fame,” Tran says of the brothers, who wished to remain anonymous backers.

The film was shot on location in Thailand and in Orange County and has won awards on the festival circuit, including stops at Sundance and the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2006.

After a red-carpet premiere in Westminster on Wednesday, it opens at the Westminster 10 and Garden Grove Stadium 16 cinemas on Friday.

For any audience – whether Vietnamese-American or not – the film tells a universal story of “love and humanity,” Ho says, as well as an emotional history lesson on events that for many remain little known or understood.

“Part of my goal is to get people asking questions,” Tran says. “It’s a history that’s not talked about, and that’s a shame, because if it’s not talked about it will be forgotten.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7787 or plarsen@ocregister.com

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