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A personal dream transforms into a collective voice summoning the ghosts of a community's past. Journey from the Fall director Ham Tran's astonishing debut feature, captures a suppressed history of Vietnamese people on two sides of the Pacific. Tran talks to APA about the journey before, during, and after the production of Asian America's most ambitious epic to date.
In the past thirty years, there have been a small handful of narrative films about the boat people of Vietnam, exiled from their homeland after an American pullout led to regime-change and widespread brutality. However, these features were made outside of the Vietnamese community; films like Ann Hui's Boat People (Hong Kong) and Hans Petter Moland's The Beautiful Country (USA/Norway) were well-intentioned, but anchored their narratives in the stories of outsiders, rather than the victims themselves.
This makes Ham Tran's Journey from the Fall, the first film about the boat people solely from the Vietnamese perspective, a landmark film by any standards. Filmed with the sensibility of a war survivor, Tran's film represents the traumas of a diasporic Vietnamese community coping with the pangs of exile and the terror of memory. A sprawling saga shot on two continents with a huge cast and realistic battle scenes, Tran's film is big-budget in a way ideal to telling a story that hasn't been told before; the 135-minute epic is unabashedly Hollywood in its production values, but experimental in structure and content.
The size of the production and the scope of its narrative vision make Journey from the Fall the rare big-budget epic in Asian American cinema. After impressing the Asian American and Vietnamese American film communities with his 2003 short film The Anniversary, Tran connected with investors and producers interested in his next Vietnam-related project. One such producer, Truc Ho, helped Tran raise funds from Vietnamese American businesspeople. Another investor, Alan Vo Ford, was so moved by Tran's next project that he immediately wrote the team a $30,000 check. If Asian American cinema is notoriously under-funded and ignored by the mainstream Asian American community, Tran was proving that the right content can move funds, in addition to hearts.
Thus, Journey from the Fall was from its inception a community-driven project. Though Tran had been throwing around ideas since his graduate school days studying film at UCLA, the shape of the film came out of meetings with producers, and the details came from discussions with survivors from the fall of Saigon. The result is a film of collective healing, with cast and crew from throughout Vietnamese America combining experiences and creativity to tell the long-overdue story from one of the most notorious chapters of recent world history. Like the best immigration narratives, Journey from the Fall is attuned to the way world tragedies manifest on the streets of America. As the first film to tell to tell this repressed story about everyday life in California, Journey from the Fall is quite simply one of the most important independent American films ever made.
Asia Pacific Arts met with director Ham Tran before the commercial release of Journey from the Fall in March 2007. The following interview is separated into two parts: the first details the preparation of the collaborative project, the second explores the film's creative reconstruction of cultural history from Vietnam to America. --Brian Hu
Interview with Ham Tran
March 3, 2007
Interview by Brian Hu
Video edit by Oliver Chien
Transcribed by Brian Hu and Ada Tseng
APA: After The Anniversary, people approached you and wanted to fund your next film. Can you talk about what kinds of people approached you?
HT: Two groups of different people. When it [The Anniversary] was a semi-finalist for the Academy Award, there was a write-up in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, so all these people just called me and were like, "Hey, we're over at this studio," or "Hey, we're over at this production company." So I went and met with them, but they were looking for American projects and not a Vietnamese project. It wasn't until we won the prize at the Vietnamese International Film Festival that all these rich Vietnamese business people came out and saw it. And this guy Alan Va Ford came up to us and said "That's an amazing short; what are you guys doing next?" So, I came up to him and I pitched a story: This family is escaping by boat, the father's in a re-education camp, the mother and son have to cross, they meet up with pirates, and they come to America, and they have to work. And he said, "Hey, wow, that's my life story." Almost beat-for-beat. His father was in a re-education camp for 13 years. He and his mother escaped with his sisters, and he was only eight, and he started working when he came over. Kind of like me. When my family came over from Vietnam, I started working at the age of eight. Child labor laws? There isn’t one. [laughs]
APA: So you already had a plan before, but when you got these financiers saying that their stories were very similar, did you start adjusting your original plans?
HT: Consistently, it kept changing. For me, I always regard the script as a blueprint anyways. I'm not hung-up on saying the words exactly like this. I wrote the script in English. We had it translated to Vietnamese. The script was based on research in books I'd read and photographs I'd seen. For three years as I was doing my other projects as a UCLA grad, I was thinking about this and researching and tucking it in the back of my filing cabinet. And when the script finally came together, we had it translated to Vietnamese. The tricky thing about Vietnamese is that there's a Northern accent and a Southern accent, and it's written like that too. So the person who translated it, translated it Northern. [He shows the difference between Northern and Southern Vietnamese.] The script that was translated was very formal, so we had to redraft that as well. And when we got there, because of budgets, we had to cut things out.
I would be re-writing scenes up until three in the morning, talking it over with my producer. I’d get to set at 5am. The actors are getting into their makeup. I tell them the scenes that I’m writing -- I have pages for them but then I just explain it to them. And I'd say, "These are the things that you will be saying, but how would you say it in Vietnamese? Say it the way you would say it, and be comfortable with it." So they would translate it, and then memorize it. They would run it over, get their makeup done. At six o'clock we're on set: we do the run-through, they're rehearsing their lines. We do camera blocking. Then we shoot, and they have to say their lines and be in the moment. It’s crazy.
As we auditioned people, we heard really amazing stories. For example, there was a woman who played Kieu (Trai’s wife). She came in and auditioned for us and told us about when she visited her husband, and she did the exact same thing that is in the film. Her husband stepped on her toe under the table, and told her "if you have the chance, you should go." Like that. We’re like, "That’s so crazy!" And she's crying as she's telling us all of this. And we just asked her, "Is it okay if we put this in the film?"
And there are a lot of sequences like that. We kept it open. Being on the boat during the storm, what they were doing during the storm. I had totally different blocking planned, but because one of the women we had cast was a real boat person, and she was like "No, no, no, that's not the way it happened. This is the way it happened." And I go, "Okay, re-blocking. Let's do this instead." The atmosphere was that it's always open for suggestions from people who went through that experience, because we had cast people who had gone through that experience.
APA: Can you say something about the auditions? Was it those experiences that led you to choosing those specific actors most?
HT: They were non-actors. The only real actors that we had were Kieu Chinh, Long Nguyen, and Jayvee Mai, who was in The Anniversary. So aside from that, most of the extras, most of the supporting roles, Mai, the captain, and the little boy were non-actors. They'd never done this before in their lives. It was an intentional choice that was made. We didn't know that much; we knew what we didn't know, and we knew we needed help. So in order for this film to film right and have that authenticity, we needed people who had gone through that experience personally. So we put an ad in the Vietnamese newspaper and said "Hey, if you're interested in working on a film, come in, but we're not looking for actors, we're looking for people with stories about the fall and the re-education camps."
So all these people poured in. The process was: each person had half an hour. We had a camera; sometimes we’d shoot, sometimes we wouldn’t shoot. We just shot their names. I just asked them, "So what kind of experiences did you have?" If they were older, I'd ask what kind of experiences they had during the fall of Saigon. I asked them how they left the country. Whether they had any relatives in the re-education camps. And depending on how they were, and what their interest level was, I'd go to the next step: if I had to ask you to go back to that memory and retell it in a moment, just close your eyes, could you do that? Some people could, some people couldn't.
I had to be really careful too. What I was looking for were people who could go back to a very specific emotional point in their lives, but at the same time, people who could make it back afterwards. Cause there were people who went there and could not stop crying; going back to that moment was so traumatizing. I knew that would be detrimental to their own personal well-being.
And for the most part, it just felt like therapy; it wasn’t like a casting session, it was like a therapy session. We had this old guy. He’s like in his sixties. He comes in, he sits down, and he’s telling us these stories about the re-education camp. They would bury you. They would have you dig a whole that's slanted and have you bound at the ankles and you would just hang upside down. That's one form of punishment. And they'd put stuff over it, so you can't even get up, and you have to lie at that angle. So he told us all these stories, and afterwards, he just gets up and starts to leave, and we’re like "Whoa, aren't you interested in the film?" And he's like, "Film? I thought you guys were just listening to people's stories!" [laughs]
We actually interviewed our executive producer's father -- he just passed away about two months ago. He spent thirteen years there, so he told us these crazy things that he saw: eating crickets, eating insects, counting corn kernels. He can still remember that every bowl had a hundred and thirty-something kernels. And they had to save it, and parcel it out. And you're like, "What? Corn kernels?" And these were things that he experienced. At the end, we asked, "So how does your family feel about this?” and he said, "Oh, I don’t tell them." So my executive producer hadn't even heard these stories about his family. It's one of those things that is therapeutic for a lot of people. They don't want to say it, or they don't want to be the first to say it, but they do want to see it represented. And then after the screening, they start talking about it.
APA: Did you get resistance from people who only wanted to go half-way with it?
HT: That's the thing too. The Vietnamese communities are our first target, but I realized that it's going to be something that's difficult to watch. It's not "go and have a good cry;" it’s really go and relive and acknowledge what happened to you. We had some Vietnamese Vietnam vets that left. About 20 minutes into the movie, a guy walks out, and his eyes are all red. He sees me and goes, "Good job, it's incredible. I can't watch anymore because it's too close, but I want to let you know, good job." And I was like, "Fuck." [laughs]
APA: Talking about memory and not wanting to face certain things, and not having representations, reminded me of controversies over Japanese internment. And how the first generation didn't want to talk about it, but rather it was their children who were forcing them to talk about it. Do you feel that it's the 1.5 or second generation Vietnamese Americans that's going to incite it?
HT: Yeah, it takes a generation to have that distance and that objectivity. Because I think that number one, if somebody from my parent's generation had done it, it would have been a total political film. "Communists: evil!" Because that's how they saw it, and that's how they experienced it. These were the accosters and the people that took their homes away from them. And took their family members away from them. For my producer Lam, these were the people who killed his father without trial. It takes the next generation to have that distance and be able to look back and address it, and at the same time, [address it] with a certain sensitivity towards the people who were involved.
I always say that there's an association between war and silence. The generation that lived through the war -- what they pass on to their kids is that silence. What their kids have to do is break through that silence and understand what happened during the war. That's exactly what you're seeing right now; you’re seeing my colleagues making those films. There's always that question of when we're going to see a Vietnamese American film that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War. And I think that in time, you will. But I think that the first step is that acknowledgement. It's like therapy. If you've gone through a traumatic event, the very first step is to go through acknowledgment. "This happened to me." And then you can heal from that.
For us, we wanted to make this film so that our own community could acknowledge that it happened and start to speak. The older generation can talk to their kids, and the younger generation can feel more comfortable about asking, because now they have a foundation or basis for their questions. But beyond that, it's for non-Vietnamese to acknowledge what happened to Vietnamese people, and to acknowledge the war as a war that affected the people of a country, and not a war that involved America. That's very important in this day and age, with Iraq and the next war that's going to be in Iran. We go to war, and we invade a country and leave. And it's all about these vets that come back to America and really disregarding all the families that you displaced in the country. Part of the goal with the film was to get that recognition and that acknowledgment from the rest of the world.
APA: To what extent was Heaven and Earth on the back of your mind? Because I have a feeling that a lot of second-generation Vietnamese Americans' idea of the Vietnam War is from Oliver Stone's films.
HT: Yeah, and me too! It actually says something about what is taught in school. "History is written by the victors, but folklore is the testament of the vanquished." I learned about the Vietnam War from Oliver Stone. Platoon was like my first image of what the war was because I grew up in the war's aftermath, so I never got a chance to see that. And my parents try not to talk about it. And you hear similar stories with people of my generation. It's like I grew up watching Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now. That was my education. But I learned the most about the Vietnam War when I made The Anniversary, and the aftermath when I was doing research and making Journey from the Fall. So this was my own history lesson as I made the film.
But I think the one moment when I thought, "Okay, we have to make this film now," was when I was watching TV, and I saw a documentary. It was called "the Vietnam film as a film genre." They go through all the classics -- Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Hamburger Hill, Tigerland, and all the others. After they go through this slew of films that they talked about, at the very end, there's a guy in the British voice: "You've seen this diversity of films and voices out of the Vietnam War, and the one last voice that remains to be told is... the African American story." And I was like, "Wow! What about the Vietnamese story?!?" I just sat there going "Ugh!!" to the TV screen. I thought that was it: I had another reason to make this film. Nobody makes a story about that.
As we were making it, Beautiful Country came out, and I was like "Okay, wow. People making a story about Vietnamese boat people?" And then I saw it, and I thought, "Okay, so it's cause the director's Dutch right?" They’re not Vietnamese. A) Their Vietnamese is terrible. B) Bai Ling?? In a steel boat? Performing Chinese opera!? What?!?
My grandfather was sixty something years old and sat in the boats like this [crouches with his knees up] because there was no room to move, let alone stand up and sing! You don't have the energy, you don't have the food, you're thirsty, you're sweating, you're about to pass out because there are 2000 people packed in the same container as you. That was the way my grandfather came. To see that onscreen is yet another slap in the face. People say that they care, and they say that they're making these stories, but they don't give a damn about the authenticity.
That film was for me, the correct three answers to the questions I was asked. When the production companies called me up after I was short-listed [for the Oscar], I went in and pitched the film, and they were like, "That's an amazing story. That's powerful. [pause] Is the script in English?" I was like, "Yeah." "So we can make it in English?" "No. This about the Vietnamese people's stories. I want to make it in Vietnamese." "In Vietnamese? Okay. So who can we cast? Can we cast Bai Ling and Lucy Liu in the film?" "They’re Chinese. They can’t speak Vietnamese." "Well can you at least write a part for an American so we can cast Tim Roth?" "Sorry, I really want to make this film and keep it true, and I don't want the language to be a barrier to the acting. And I really don't want to make another film about an American person who met these wonderful people and wanted to help them -- these wonderful Asian people... Oh they're so devastated after war! I've got to help them!" I’m sick of stories like that.
But they answered the questions right, and I answered the questions wrong. So they are a film that got a distributed in the mainstream, and I'm running around passing out postcards and putting up posters. [laughs]
Part 1 | Part 2
Date Posted: 3/16/2007