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San Jose Merc: Vietnam family’s tale will break your heart

<- Jayvee Mai The Hiep, left, and Long Nguyen from a scene in the film “Journey From the Fall.” (IMAGINASIAN Pictures)

Vietnam family’s tale will break your heart
By Bruce Newman
San Jose Mercury News

The story of Vietnam’s “boat people,” who fled by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1970s and early ’80s, has been told – and often oversimplified – in films as part of an ongoing immigrant fable about the American dream. In pictures as various as Timothy Bui’s “Green Dragon” and “The Beautiful Country,” the Vietnamese-American diaspora has been reassuringly pitched as a rising tide that lifted all boat people.

In the heartbreaking drama “Journey From the Fall” (“Vuot Song”), beginning its exclusive Bay Area engagement at the Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose today, the story is reopened like an old wound. “Journey” starts as the Vietnam War ends, but unlike the Americans seen crowding onto helicopters during the fall of Saigon, no one in the film ever completely escapes Vietnam.

Though many of the refugees who took to the high seas on small fishing boats were seeking the prosperity that America seemed to offer, others were desperate to escape the re-education camps to which former South Vietnamese soldiers were being herded. “Journey From the Fall” begins with Long Nguyen (played by the actor Long Nguyen) refusing the desperate plea of his wife, Mai (Diem Lien), to evacuate with the Americans, and quickly descends into the hell that he faces in the camps.

Subjected to unspeakable acts of cruelty by his communist jailers for his refusal to be “re-educated,” Long soon recognizes the hopelessness of his situation. He tells Mai to take their small son Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) and his elderly mother Ba Noi (Kieu Chinh) and try to escape on one of the rickety boats setting sail for the United States. It seems almost unimaginable that they will succeed.

It’s that pervasive sense of hopelessness, in fact, that sets writer-director Ham Tran’s story apart, and makes most of the first hour of the film crushingly painful to watch. I know that doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement (“Crushingly painful!” – the Mercury News), but the meaning of all that suffering – theirs and yours – becomes clear in the second half of the film.

That’s when “Journey” arrives in Orange County, but even after the family resettles in America – scarred by weeks of drifting at sea, and a horrifying raid by Thai pirates – the movie carries on with Long’s story in the camp. He begins to plot his own way out, refusing to give up on seeing his family again, even though the only possibility of escape is across an unexploded minefield.

“To get to life, you have to cross death,” Long tells another prisoner. Sometimes it really is about the journey, not the destination.

Writer-director Ham Tran will answer questions from the audience following the 6:45 p.m. showing Sunday at the Camera 12.

Journey From the Fall

Rated R (some violence)

Cast Kieu Chinh, Long Nguyen, Diem Lien, Khanh Doan, Cat Ly, Nguyen Thai Nguyen

Writer-director Ham Tran

Running time 2 hours, 15 minutes

In Vietnamese and English with English subtitles.

Contact Bruce Newman or (408) 920-5004. Read his reviews online at www.mercurynews.com/brucenewman/, and listen to his weekly DVD podcasts at www.mercextra.com/listen.

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