The Streets of Orange County

April 7, 2007

The Streets of Orange County

By LiMin Lam

APA reflects on Journey from the Fall — this time from the perspective of its premiere in Orange County, where the Vietnamese American community helped give the film the weekend’s biggest per-screen average at the North American box office.

I grew up hearing stories that came from another world — a world that belonged to my parents and the memories they had of their once-home in Saigon, Vietnam. For my father, these memories were some of the few things he had left from his past — pirates had pillaged the boat that he and his brother were escaping on en route to Malaysia. Pirates, swindlers, and boats that were cast off into the night. The stories that I would hear when my parents were in a mode to reminisce sounded like chapters in fairy tale books that I used to read. Except these stories were profoundly real: my parents recalled how they and their families were forced to flee from a war-torn country.

When I learned of Ham Tran’s latest film, Journey from the Fall, I knew immediately that I had to bring my mother to see it. For myself, I wanted to match pictures to scenes that I could only previously imagine. For my mother, I wanted to let her know that she lived a history that now would be captured on film for others to understand.

Throughout his movie, Tran vividly depicted three aspects of the war and its aftermath: the escape of the boat people, the savage re-education camps that enslaved defiant anti-communists, and the final arrival of Vietnamese immigrants to a free but foreign America. Because my parents were able to leave Vietnam prior to America’s detachment to the war, they circumvented the horrors of the re-education camps and the complete takeover of Southern Vietnam by the Northern communists. Despite that, I still associated many of the same scenes to what my parents had previously told me. “Ma, was that the size of your boat?” I whispered to my mom midway through the story. “No, ours was a little bigger,” my mother replied — but in the back of my mind, I remembered her telling me about the long, tolling journey and how a few bags of dried noodles had to be rationed to feed several mouths.

Actress Kieu Chinh, who plays the role of a resilient grandmother in Journey to the Fall, spoke to me before the premiere of the film. Chinh recalled how she had to become a refugee twice in her life. Once in 1954 when she left her home in Northern Vietnam to find refuge in Southern Vietnam, and after that, to journey half way around the world in 1975 to find sanction in America. Certainly, this personal experience was reflected in Chinh’s spectacular performance in Journey to the Fall. Her character’s staunch refusal to let war dissolve her family exposes emotions that are raw and fundamental, emotions that can be understood in all languages and by all cultures. Such is the story of the boat people, a story to which Chinh says with firmness, “Yes, it is my story.” But it should also be a story that most Americans sympathize with, as Chinh remarked, “Most of us are refugees coming, America is the melting pot.”

As this pot melts, however, each generation becomes more and more removed from the endeavors and realities of their immigrant parents and/or grandparents. With this distancing, there leaves a void in understanding how there came to be a Vietnamese American community. Determined not to let the story of the boat people fade with each new generation of immigrants to America, Tran insisted that his movie be told from the viewpoint of the boat people themselves. Finding talent from within the Vietnamese community, most of the actors in Tran’s cast were people who had lived and breathed the struggles that came with the Vietnam War. Paying close attention to these details, Tran’s intentions are two-fold: for younger members of the Vietnamese community, he says, he hopes to foster new dialogue between generations, and allow parents who had previously kept silent about their past to use the film as an occasion to discuss their history with their children; for those not in the Vietnamese community, Tran wants them “to finally get how come there are Vietnamese people [living in America]” — that for many in the community, they came “by circumstance, not by choice.”

But the history of the boat people does not end with their arrival to America. In the wake of each new generation of Vietnamese Americans, there continues to be stories untold, and to this, Tran eagerly hints that we wait for his next film. As to the successful production of Journey to the Fall, Westminster Mayor Marie L. Rice says that she is “very proud, very honored” to host the premiere of Tran’s film in her city. With Westminster being home to one of America’s largest Vietnamese American populations, Rice says, “Our Vietnamese community has brought so much talent, and has given so much to our city.” And indeed, Tran’s film has done all of this in its very own genuine, heartfelt fashion.

Read APA’s interview with Ham Tran here.

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