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In a perpetual state of uncertainty

Ham Tran's `Journey From the Fall' tells of Vietnamese lives in wrenching transition.

March 23, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

A superbly wrought saga of loss and survival, "Journey From the Fall" follows a family and some friends from their escape from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon to their eventual arrival in Southern California. Vast in scope yet carefully nuanced, Ham Tran's film represents a major accomplishment.

The U.S. production made primarily by South Vietnamese immigrants opens today in two Orange County theaters, a sure-fire attraction in the heart of the Vietnamese American community but richly deserving of wider exposure. Tran, who co-produced and wrote the film with Lam Nguyen, made it not just to mirror the experiences of his fellow emigres but also to convey to the widest audience possible the ordeal most of his people experienced in having to flee their homeland and build new lives in a radically different culture. It is a remarkably ambitious debut feature for Tran, a UCLA film school graduate.

An example of sophisticated, impassioned filmmaking involving mainly people who lived through the harrowing experiences so unsparingly depicted, "Journey From the Fall" powerfully illustrates the refugee/immigrant experience. It is not the first film to deal with the plight of South Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War; its predecessors include dynamic Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui's "Boat People," released in 1983, and Oliver Stone's overwrought "Heaven and Earth," which opened in 1993. "Journey," however, is one of the most comprehensive and accessible.

After the fall of Saigon, Long Nguyen (played by an actor of the same name) stubbornly, even nobly but certainly foolishly, refuses to leave Vietnam, out of his loyalty to the fallen South Vietnamese government and a desire to continue in some undefined way "to fight for his country." He orders his wife, Mai (Diem Lien), his mother (Kieu Chinh) and small son, Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen), to flee by boat. For much of the film, Tran cuts between the hellish experience Long endures at a brutal communist reeducation camp and the horrific ordeal his family experiences as boat people. "Journey From the Fall," with Thailand standing in for Vietnam, is an often shimmeringly beautiful film that constantly juxtaposes tenderness and kindness with depictions of savagery and brutality, enriched greatly both by Guillermo Rosas' plangent camerawork and by Christopher Wong's evocative score.

Tran presents his people in the round, and his cast is remarkable. Long may have been foolhardy but remains unflinchingly courageous under extreme pressure. The grandmother and her daughter-in-law are both strong, loving women but compete for the love and caring of little Lai. In key support are Jayvee Mai The Hiep as Thanh, Long's loyal cellmate; Khanh Doan as a staunch boat captain and Cat Ly as Mai's friend.

"Journey From the Fall" seethes with the torment of uncertainty -- Long hears that his family died at sea, and his family has no way of knowing whether he is dead or alive.

In dramatic terms the film could have legitimately ended with the arrival of the family and their friends in Southern California, but Tran successfully sustains a bigger, bolder arc to show that their troubles are by no means over upon reaching American shores.

"Journey From the Fall." MPAA rating: R for some violence. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Exclusively at the Regal Garden Grove Stadium 16, 9741 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (800) 326-3284; and the Edwards Westminster 10, 6721 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (800) 326-3264, #172.

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