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A Life Cut Short

'Letters to Thien' is an intimate portrait of a murdered Vietnamese American.


Trac Minh Vu's first, remarkably accomplished and poignant documentary, "Letters to Thien"--about Thien Minh Ly, the victim of a racially motivated killing in Orange County on Super Bowl Sunday two years ago--does not tell the story you might expect.

The grisly details of the brutal murder are mentioned but not extensively reported. Vu apparently wants to avoid sensationalism and the prospect of giving any satisfaction to the pair of remorseless killers--both white supremacists, both convicted--one of whom smugly enjoyed his notoriety during a trial in which he was sentenced to death.

The 55-minute documentary, to be shown Saturday at UC Irvine as part of the Asian Pacific American Awareness Conference (2:20 p.m.), begins in blackness with the voice of Dao Huynh speaking in Vietnamese. Her anguished words, translated in captions, appear at the bottom of the screen.

"My dear son Thien," she says. "It has been a year since you had to leave us, your parents and siblings, because of the cruel and discriminatory hands of two wicked people who destroyed our family . . . leaving us painfully, leaving us in an immense sadness."

Images come up gently of a crowd of people, mainly Vietnamese, standing in darkness and holding lighted candles. Her voice continues.

"After you [were] murdered, our family has changed a lot. Although most activities still go on as before--your father and I still go to work as before, your siblings still go to school--without you, we have been living in hell. Day in day out, every hour, every minute, we really miss you, love you."

The camera pans the faces in the crowd, slowly revealing a memorial service in progress. A small bell rings, and the haunting melody of a flute lends an even moodier texture

to the scene, which fades to black again. The lonely tune plays on as the credits come up and the imagery shifts.

We see a cyclone fence that encloses a desolate-looking high school tennis court. It is the killing ground where Ly was attacked and stabbed repeatedly, but we are not told that. The memory of the court's cracked asphalt lingers, though, brought back by a narrative interview with Ly's younger sister, Thu, and still later by a brief display of crime-scene photographs.

When the imagery shifts again, this time to huge close-ups of handwritten pages, the camera scans them. No sentence can be read whole, but key words and phrases seem to float like bottled messages on a sea of white paper.

They are followed by newspaper headlines and news clippings. A sentence, startling for its nonchalance and braggadocio, now catches the eye: "Oh, I killed a jap a while ago."

Only then does the actual story begin, painting its subject not so much as a 24-year-old victim of a hate crime--though that is frequently mentioned--but as someone whose rare and admirable qualities had touched, even inspired, many people in his life.

"Letters to Thien" personalizes Thien Minh Ly with warmth and intimacy, drawing from his senseless death a tragic meaning. We learn about him from his sister and brother, his parents and college classmates.

Ly, who graduated eighth in his class from Tustin High School, went on to UCLA, where he received his bachelor's degree, then got his master's from Georgetown University.

He had a love of poetry, Shakespeare and writing. He kept a daily journal and had an insatiable curiosity about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. Moreover, Ly had been a community activist at UCLA, president of the Vietnamese Students Assn., but was too modest to tell his parents about that. They discovered it when they attended an evening of cultural events he helped organize and, to their surprise, gave the keynote speech.

We learn that Ly also was a model of excellence for his younger sister and brother, both of whom describe his devotion to them and the hope they took from him.

Notwithstanding all the testimonials, especially a moving interview in which Ly's brother, Thai, is overcome by emotion, the film manages to avoid strict hagiography. It preserves a certain candor about the main conflict in Ly's life, one not limited to immigrant Vietnamese families striving for assimilation and upward mobility.

Ly wanted to fulfill his parents' expectations and yet remain true to himself. They pressured him to pursue a career in medicine, which, according to his friends, conflicted with his own ambitions. Before his fatal chance encounter with his killers, he was preparing to go to law school in hopes of returning to Vietnam one day and perhaps working in its justice system.

While painting its loving portrait, however, the documentary does glance over many tantalizing details. Why was his father imprisoned in Vietnam for six years before the family's escape to the United States? We can only assume it's because he'd been an officer in the South Vietnamese army, which is mentioned in passing.

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