The Reeler


March 22, 2007

Journey From the Fall

Worthy cause meets confused effect in post-Vietnam POW drama

Journey From the Fall isn't a movie; it's an atrocity exhibition awkwardly coupled with a Joy Luck Club drama about kids who just don't understand how much they have to be grateful for. Worthiness of cause should never be confused with effect: Though Ham Tran's debut feature is undeniably super-educational for Western viewers unfamiliar with the often brutal history of post-war Vietnam (including, admittedly, your reviewer), it's lackluster, rehashed dramatic formula all the way.

At least the film’s opening is promising, if disorienting, as it time-hops with alarming frequency (and little apparent method) between the fall of Saigon, 1981, 1979 and virtually any other feasible year in between. Tran gradually unfolds the story of Long (Long Nguyen), who stays in Vietnam as Saigon is falling while his family members flee, go into hiding, and join "the boat people" sneaking out of the country for the "new economic zone" (the Vietnamese euphemism for the U.S.). Long's story is a familiarly brutal POW narrative, one that involves a lot of time in solitary confinement, arbitrary executions and forced labor. The difference is that Long is a prisoner of his own government, moved from one "re-education" camp to another, while refusing to concede his beliefs to the communist government.

The best thing here is Long's tête-a-tête with a seemingly sympathetic doctor. "Do you want to hear a joke?" Long asks. "What is the difference between a re-education camp and a normal prison? In a normal prison, you know what your crime is and how long your sentence is." After a pause, the doctor asks, "Do you know why people fear Marxists so much? It's because everyone knows they have no sense of humor." Then he beats Long up. The sequence speaks volumes about the gaps between ideology, its execution and how people define themselves politically (and it would also be a perfect bit in a Charles Bronson vehicle), but it's also a rare fresh moment in an all too familiar march through the gulag.

Long’s family's story is slightly less familiar, and its smuggled boat voyage is full of detail; Tran vividly re-creates the sea-sickness within close and inevitably vomit-splattered quarters. But the film still succumbs to the primary fault of most films that strive to personalize famous political events: assuming that the people living in especially fraught times have no personal thoughts, their psyches fully engaged in tumult 24/7. The family never has a moment uncolored by awareness of their experience, the same kind of rote characterization that drives recent movies like the little seen Home Of The Brave (where post-combat life is merely a series of flashbacks and explosions) or Sorry, Haters (where, apparently, all New Yorkers spend their time reprocessing 9/11). The film reinforces this simplistic world view with periodic, plaintive Super-8 flashbacks to the family in happier times -- pre-war and hence pre-sadness -- complete with melancholy piano tinkling as young son Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) frolics on the beach while Mom and Dad share moments staring at the sea.

In America, the family confronts the usual thorny problems of assimilation. Tran's eye for California is never more than superficial: For contrast with his presumably authentically Vietnamese (and hence worthier of the film’s sympathy than assimilated types) family, he trots out a former refugee; an Americanized, lip-gloss-wearing California girl, her main function is to announce, "They have a saying here: 'If you have a problem, go to the mall.' " The principal at young Lai's new school is particularly dense, bewildered as to why the traumatized pre-teen might have trouble fitting in.

The film's finale creepily advocates sticking to the family unit and ignoring the outside world, as though this country’s immigration policies were primarily concerned with practicing cultural aggression on refugees. (This may well be true in other contexts, but it's a puzzling tack here.) Director Tran admits that Lai is loosely modeled on his own experiences, which suggests the film as both an apology and/or an argument for the immigrants' eventual acceptance of their heritage, which in turn makes the film seem a bit smug. Ultimately, it’s not the half-valid, half-bunk cultural values espoused throughout that sink the film, but rather the sheer dramatic inertia: Journey From The Fall utterly fails to find a new way of telling a story that, at heart, isn't that new. That atrocities and mediocre films are constants of life is sad, but in this case, at least one of them is avoidable.

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