A movie directed by Robert Luketic
Seldom have I seen a film that almost brought me to tears. This film by writer/director Ham Tran did, and believe me when I say it is no easy task for me to be so moved and touched by a film. "Journey from the Fall" is a tale about the "Boat People" from Vietnam; I've never seen a film that absolutely, accurately portrayed the harrowing experiences of these people. I was extremely lucky to have seen this film in a limited engagement in theaters two years ago.
The story revolves around a fictional family (based on real people) who because of the father's decisiveness to stay and defend Saigon from its invaders during the Vietnam War results in his family's hardships and eminent inner heroism. After the communist side won the war, Long, a husband and a father to a son, was captured and sent to the so-called re-education camps. He urges his wife; Mai, their son Lai and the grandmother to "hop" on the first chance they get to leave for America. Mai, Lai, and the grandmother; Ba Noi manages to reach America with the aid of the boat's captain who has developed a fondness for Mai. Upon, learning that his family has reached safety, Long becomes determined to escape and join his family in America...
The director's hard work and talent is awe-inspiring. I've read that Tran actually interviewed numerous Vietnamese refugees and survivors of the re-education camps, even examined photos to visualize/recreate the brutal re-education camps. His efforts are well worth the wait. The father's character Long's experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. The harrowing set designs of the said camps are very realistic. Ironically, the camps have a sign that says; "Nothing is more precious than Freedom". Within these camps, prisoners are brutally abused by the soldiers who guards them, beaten to near-death and locked up in small windowless boxes; heated by the searing heat of the sun during the day and cold in the evening. They are told that they will be released after they've been re-educated but Long knows that he will die within these walls if he doesn‘t escape.
Tran doesn't hold back with some graphic scenes in this film. Next up, he shows the experiences of Mai, Lai and Ba Noi in a small fishing boat headed for America. The director effectively took me to the dark, cramped space, full of seasick women and kids, so accurately that I almost felt that I was also in the selfsame cramped boat. It was very difficult to witness every painful moan of a sick child and woman; the sequences had that very unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere. The folks in the boat are also in the mercy of nature; shifting waves and the weather make their journey very perilous, they had to contend with powerful storms. To make matters worst, the boat is attacked by pirates who indiscriminately kill, kidnap and rape the women. They tear the children from their mother's arms, all this brutality and repulsive action is very hard to stomach. While the scenes may not be as violent from a visual standpoint, the scenes were emotionally driven. It was so moving to see people endure these conditions and somehow, they manage to survive.
After Mai, Lai and Ba Noi finally do make it to America, settling in Orange County, you may think everything will be fine. Now, they will have to adjust to their new life in a new community where some welcome their presence while others disdain and give a hint of discrimination towards them. Ba Noi takes care of Lai while Mai works her butt off in a sweatshop. Young Lai also has his own problems when he becomes a target of school bullies. I suppose one may say these hardships are nothing compared to their previous experiences. Once Long hears word of his family's arrival in America, he becomes obsessed and determined in escape. Does he succeed?
It is very difficult to express the film's deep emotional impact. I saw this film in one of San Francisco's Asian film festivals and they had open forums/interviews before the movie began. The actor who played the boat's captain was supposed to play Long's lead character, but he wouldn't have been able to take the stress of re-enacting his own personal experiences when he was an actual prisoner in those re-education camps. The film also explores the hardships of re-establishing themselves in a new society; their experiences are a true testament to the "Boat People's" courage and determination.
The film's main strengths come from its excellent cast headed by Long Nguyen and Kieu Chinh (Joy Luck Club). Diem Lien is a Vietnamese pop star but in her role as Mai, she proves that she is more than a great voice; she portrays her character convincingly. The entire cast is outstanding; they all give the performances of their lives including the young kid who plays Lai. The viewer will have no problems connecting to the film's characters, they are very sympathetic and the film stays aloft through its emotional narrative.
"JOURNEY FROM THE FALL" is a true masterpiece. It takes us from the jungles of Vietnam, to the harrowing experience of the re-education camps and the horrific boat ride to the land of opportunity. Tran's talent shines through with his attention to detail; it shows that he made this film direct from his heart and with loving care. Tran's film is a fitting homage to the real-life tales of those survived this ordeal and gives honor to the survivors after the fall of Saigon; paying tribute to those who lived and those who did not.
As depressing the film's premise may be, I found one strong, very moving message; it is not glamorous and is one of the dogged against all odds lesson of human survival:
"No one is going to help you, you may not be capable and your efforts may end up in failure. But if you may struggle hard enough to survive, then MAYBE your next meal is ALL the reward you will need".
This message may not be pretty, but there is a lot of HONESTY that lasts beyond its end credits.
Nothing...I mean nothing can touch the human spirit....
HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!! [4 ½+ stars]
A message from one of the lead actresses, Kieu Chinh:
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A movie directed by Robert Luketic
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