The departure from Vietnam, reexperienced

March 28, 2007

 Howard Ho, Special to The Times

WRITER-director Ham Tran likes to whisper. He often does it as he directs his actors, looking them in the eyes.

“Their eyes will tell you if they’re in the moment or not,” Tran said, adding that entering the difficult moments he wanted to create is “not about tears. It’s about drifting into a place of memory.” Such drifting was an important process for Tran’s first feature, “Journey From the Fall,” which opened Friday in limited release in New York, San Jose, Westminster and Garden Grove. The film follows the Vietnamese refugee experience after the 1975 fall of Saigon, tracing the story of a family that must flee to America by boat when a father is detained in a “reeducation” camp. Around the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Tran became obsessed with little-known stories of the estimated 2 million boat people who fled the Communists. He would eventually interview more than 400 people, including refugees and survivors of the reeducation camps, which were essentially prisons.

With Thailand substituting for Vietnam (the government still disavows the camps and wouldn’t permit filming), Tran cast many of his interviewees, asking them to relive their memories, which he regards as the smartest decision he made. Though they weren’t actors, with the help of Tran’s whisperings they provided a palpable realism to the film.

For instance, Tran elicited a tearful performance from one survivor who’d lost contact with his daughter. “I said, ‘For the next five minutes I want you to look at this photograph. Picture your missing daughter. What would you say to her?’ ” Tran said. “And naturally from there he went straight into the dialogue.”

“For those people, they don’t have to act,” said Kieu Chinh (“The Joy Luck Club”), one of few professional actors on set. “They cry real tears, not make-up tears.”

In another scene, Tran took his cast to the middle of the ocean to catch a rainstorm (rain machines were not included in the film’s $1.6-million budget). When Tran ordered actors to hide from the rain, one survivor in the cast corrected him.

“[This woman said], ‘When the storm came, we jumped out of the hull. We grabbed all the bowls we could find. We soaked it up into our clothes and wrung out our clothes later to drink the water, because we were that thirsty,’ ” Tran said.

He depicts a reeducation camp experience of hard labor, isolation and corporeal punishment, the details of which remain somewhat obscured even in the Vietnamese American community. Although more than three decades have passed, many who lived through the fall of South Vietnam and the subsequent relocations and “reeducations” still have a hard time talking about it, Tran found. The shame of suffering and losing their country is often bottled up in favor of American optimism. But after sold-out screenings of the film’s rough-cut in 2005 and its Sundance premiere in 2006, Tran sees more dialogue between generations.

“It’s a catalyst to open up the discussion,” he said, “because if no one ever speaks the first words, they would never be said.”

It’s his story too

TRAN left Vietnam in 1982, when he was 8, and while he was not a boat person, he ended up in a refugee camp. His family settled in Santa Ana, and he captures its experience in “Journey.” Being ethnic Chinese, Tran grew up “whitewashed,” as his American and Chinese cultures left little room for Vietnamese roots. But in his last year of college, he reconnected after seeing a Vietnamese American theater troupe’s show about growing up as a refugee.

He joined the troupe, Club O’Noodles, as an actor, writer and director. Then went to UCLA film school, where his Vietnamese-themed short film “The Anniversary” was shortlisted for a 2004 Oscar. While filming “Anniversary” on location in Vietnam, Tran kept his eye on a feature film, retaining key crew members, including composer Christopher Wong and cinematographer Guillermo Rosas (“Before Night Falls”).

Tran stays busy in the community, producing and editing films for fellow Vietnamese American filmmakers such as Charlie Nguyen, who’s making an action film called “The Rebel.” Tran’s next script is a World War II drama about the 442nd Regiment, which was solely comprised of Japanese Americans.

Tran hopes “Journey” will lay the groundwork for a new theatrical niche. The release is the first for the Asian American-run Imaginasian, which will roll out the film in 10 North American cities. With grass-roots marketing efforts in Orange County’s Little Saigon, where Tran was recently editing the film’s trailer at a local Vietnamese TV station, Tran sees his project as bigger than his film.

“The whole release is about building a new audience altogether,” Tran said. “It’s about finding the right product to galvanize the community. The last time you had something like that was ‘Better Luck Tomorrow.’ [Only] then you can have ‘Harold & Kumar.’ “

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