Ham, Kieu & Long talk about "Journey from the Fall"


Journey from the Fall” is inspired by the true stories of Vietnamese refugees who fled their land after the fall of Saigon—and those who were forced to stay behind; the film follows one family’s struggle for freedom. Despite his allegiance to the toppled South Vietnamese government, Long Nguyen (as Long Nguyen) decides to remain in Vietnam. Imprisoned in a Communist re-education camp, he urges his family to make the escape by boat without him. His wife Mai (Diem Lien), son Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) and mother Ba Noi (Kieu Chinh) then embark on the arduous ocean voyage in the hope of reaching the U.S. and freedom. After learning of his family’s successful arrival in America, he is inspired to make an attempt to join them.
Ham Tran director of Journey From the Fall was born in Saigon. He recently graduated from UCLA with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film and Television. Tran won numerous awards as a student and is continuing his great work with “Journey from the Fall”.

Bijan Tehrani: What inspired you to write and direct “Journey from the Fall”?
Ham Tran: The inspiration to do Journey From the Fall came as I was researching for my thesis film at UCLA. I came across two books, “The Inviting Call of Wandering Souls” and “Pirates On the Gulf of Siam”. The former is a memoir of a re-education camp survivor, and the latter is a compilation of letters to the United Nations, written by “boat people” in a Thai refugee camp. The letters were a plea for help to stop the pirates who were robbing and raping the “boat people” on the high seas. This book moved me from tears to outrage. I mean, just the sheer volume of stories about the terrible crimes that had taken place, was still taking place at the time the letters were written made me ask myself, “How come nothing was done at the time? How come these acts of violation were allowed to continue?” and finally, “How come in the last thirty years, has there never been a film made about the re-education camps, about the “boat people”, at least from the Vietnamese point of view?”

Bijan: Do you remember the last days of Saigon before it falls? You should have been a very young kid back then.
Ham: The day Saigon fell, I was only a year and two months old. I don’t remember it, because I didn’t know it. My parents and their generation, they knew it. They know is as the day their entire world turned upside down. After that, there was no longer a city called “Saigon”, because it was renamed “Ho Chi Minh City”. For them, April 30, 1975 was the day they “lost” their country. For me, this was the day the country of Viet Nam became two countries, the actual country itself and the disembodied Vietnamese Overseas.

Bijan:Journey from the Fall” is a shocking movie about a part of history that world does not have a visual reference for it. You have created a realistic looking movie about last days of Saigon before the fall and re-education camps. How you have managed to do this?
Ham: A lot of the details came through personal interviews that we conducted with “boat people” and re-education camp survivors. For the camp we were fortunate enough to know a reporter for the Orange County Register by the name of Bao Anh Do. She had written a special article in which she spoke with camp survivors, and from their descriptions had an artist drew up a camp layout. My producer, Lam, and I then took this article with us whenever we interviewed a camp survivor. We’d show them the illustration and have them tell us how their camp was different. After that, we had our production designer draft a plan for the camp in our film, and got more feedback.
As for the rest of the realism, I think the best recognition that Lam and I had was to know that we didn’t know. This led to my decision to cast non-actors, and to look for people who had specifically gone through the experiences depicted in the film. These “actors” would then constantly give us feedback as to the details of the films, whether certain things made sense, and whether design details were correct. One detail I remember is the color of oranges in a scene where Mai, the main character, peels an orange as she speaks with Phuong, a young woman Mai meets during her boat escape. We had to paint the oranges green on the outside because at the time the rind of oranges were not orange, but green.

Bijan: How has been the reaction of those who have actually been into the re-education camps to the movie?
Ham: In general they have been very supportive. Actually, there was a group of Vietnamese veterans who bought out an entire screening of Journey From the Fall at the Edwards Westminster 10. The reactions have varied from those who say that their camp was not nearly as bad to those who said that our camp was too luxurious. Some literally said, “Your prisoners sat on benches and wore camp uniforms. We sat on the dirt and wore tattered scraps.”

Bijan: What was the most challenging aspect of making the “Journey from the Fall”?
Ham: I think that for this film, the motto would have to be “ignorance is bliss”. If Lam and I stopped to think about what we were doing, we would have never made this film. The budget was too small and the scope was too big. It was a script of epic proportion done on a super “indie” budget. The most challenging aspect of the film was rewriting the script to tailor to the little money we had. I mean, literally, Lam and I were changing the script until 2 in the morning, then I’d go off to write until 3 or 4am, while Lam went to check on the set. I would then show up to set at 5am and go over it with the actors, have them translate the script from English to Vietnamese, and then putting the dialogue in their own words so that they felt for natural saying the lines. Lam would have to check on the set every night because the camp location we shot at was a basin that was on flood alert. These floods are not the little ankle-high types, but the ten-foot high, biblical kinds. Our set was flooded or submerged, as I should say, four times in the week before we shot. If one looks at the set walls in the camp lecture scene, they can see the watermark near the top of the set.

Bijan: A few people that I watched the “Journey from the Fall” had different reaction to the second part of the movie, the part in US. Some of them said they loved the second part as it helped them to know the characters better and the rest said it would have been better if the movie had ended by Long family making to come to US and Long’s death. What do you think about this matter?
Ham: The film was always written to include the American experience. Our journey did not end with the arrival to America. We were only half way there. I remember stepping off the plane and looking around wide-eyed. Everything was so big! My aunt who sponsored us through the Christian Coalition took us to Carls Jr. I had the “Big Star Burger”, and I couldn’t even get both of my hands around the bun. Everything changed. My family was Buddhist in Viet Nam, but once we stepped foot onto America, my father converted to Protestantism. He was convinced that God had saved his family. My family is ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese, for once we landed I was encouraged to speak Chinese at home and not Vietnamese. For me, it was a world of change that I had to reconcile with. For my parents, the past didn’t mattered anymore; our future was all that mattered. This second part of our journey was the bridge to the 1.5 generation, my generation, and the key to understanding how the resettlement process affected the children whose futures my parents fought so hard to secure.

Bijan: Your scenes in re-education camps look quite real. Had you ever spend time or visited one of those camps?
Ham: We actually tried, but most, if not all, of the camps have already been dismantled, so it was impossible. There was a particular camp in our film, Da Ban, which is located in the jungles north of Nha Trang. Our production designer traveled with a camp survivor all the way to the place where he once, but nothing was there.

Bijan: How has been the reaction of the people who have seen the movie?
Ham: It’s been so gratifying walking into the theater and seeing a packed house, all Vietnamese! I spoke with a woman and her husband after they came out of the theater, and she said to me, “We’ve been here 15 years, but this is the first time we’ve ever stepped foot in a theater.”
The best feeling, however, is to see the older generation going to the movies with their kids, and the college kids bringing their parents. I get the feeling that this film is helping to bridge their generational gap.
Then, of course, there is the non-Vietnamese who come out in shock. One woman in Houston came up to me and said, “Thank you for making this film.” She was a teacher, but this is the first time she has ever heard a Viet Nam war story from a Vietnamese perspective.

Bijan: Is there any difference between the way the people with Vietnamese origin react to the movie and the other audiences?
Ham: Absolutely. There is a very Vietnamese term called “buon cuoi”, which means something that is so sad that it makes you laugh. It’s like when you’re luck is so bad, the only way you can deal with it is to laugh. There many scenes in this film that are “buon cuoi”, and with a non-Vietnamese audience, they are so serious. With a Vietnamese audience, the theater is filled with laughter. I love seeing the film with a Vietnamese audience for that very reason.

Bijan: Please tell us about your future projects.
Ham: I’m currently working on a 100th Battalion/442nd project. It’s a film about the Japanese Americans who fought in Europe during World War II. It’s another community story that I feel deserves to be told to a wider audience. At the same time, I’ve recently been inspired by another refugee story that is so incredible, it has to be true! It is a road-flick of refugee proportions, haha.

Kieu Chinh
was born in North Vietnam, and sometimes it seems like she has two separate careers. In America, she has appeared in numerous movies, from “Gleaming the Cube” to “The Joy Luck Club.” Chinh has also played roles in many American TV shows. From her first role in “M*A*S*H”, to her roles on “Chicago Hope”, “Fantasy Island”, and “ER”, she has had great success on American television. Before all of this, however, she was one of Asia’s most famous actresses and producers. She even shot a movie on the front lines during the Vietnam War and endured numerous struggles as a filmmaker; her filmography lists more than a hundred films. Chinh has worked very hard for her success in both nations and has garnered numerous accolades as a filmmaker and actress. Now living in Southern California, Kieu Chinh actively supports cultural and social causes.

Bijan: What inspired you to accept to play the character of Ba Noi in “Journey from the Fall”?
Kieu Chinh: When I first read the script, “Journey from the Fall,” I saw that it was a very powerful story of a family that had been torn apart by war. The journey they have endured together is almost symbolic of millions of families during that period of history in my country. That inspired me to accept the character of Ba Noi and I am proud to be a part of that family.

Bijan: Ba Noi has to go through the terrible experience of the boat ride. How did you manage without experiencing the same situation to play that part of the movie so convincing?
Kieu: As an actress for fifty years, I have portrayed different personalities and nationalities from Vietnamese to Korean, Japanese to Indian, Thai to Cambodian, Laosien and Chinese. I do not have experience for each character that I have portrayed in hundreds of stories. Each time, when I am on the set, in front of the camera, I’m not Kieu-Chinh, but the character.

Bijan: Did your own experience in your adventurous life as a refuge help you to understand Ba Noi better?
Kieu: Yes. Besides being a professional, the experience of my own life helped me to empathize with characters like Ba Noi in “Journey from the Fall” or mother Suyuan in “The Joy Luck Club”.

Bijan: A strong point in “Journey from the Fall” is the realistic portraying of the relationship between Ba, as a traditional grandma and Lai a child with no father. What helped you to make this relationship in your part look so believable and did your relationship with Nguyen Thai on the set helped at all?
Kieu: Certainly my relationship with Thai Nguyen on the set helped. Actually, the flow of the story itself brings us together, not only in front of but behind the camera as well. Thai calls me “Ba Noi” on and off camera. In the years of the Vietnam War, many children were left without a father. In my real life, I do have activities and relationships with those children which give me a better perspective of Ba Noi’s character.

Bijan: Do you think “Journey from the Fall” could help the world to better understand what the people of Vietnam have gone through?
Kieu: Yes. Thanks to Steven Spielberg for making “Schindler’s List” which gave all of us the opportunity to better understand what the Jewish people endured during the Second World War I hope “Journey from the Fall,” in some aspects, can help the world better understand what the Vietnamese refugees have gone through after the Vietnam war.

Bijan: Please tell us about your future projects.
Kieu: There are some projects, but it’s too early to tell. Motion picture is international language. I am looking forward to working with some films without borders.

Long Nguyen, a veteran of over a dozen feature and short films, Vietnamese-American actor, was one of the original boat people to escape from Vietnam when Long was only 16 years of age. Long experienced numerous struggles to arrive in America and adapt to a new culture.
Long Nguyen attended college in Memphis and received his engineering degree but decided to pursue art six months later. Long moved to California joining his father and brothers. Later, he earned his MFA in San Jose.
Nguyen has won two “best actor” awards. He received one for “Journey from the Fall” in the 2006 Newport Beach Film Festival and one for short “Apsara” in the 2003 California Independent Film Festival.
Long first met director Ham Tran after a screening of Tran’s short film, “The Anniversary” and he asked to audition for whatever they were working on next. Instead, Tran gave him the part of the Vietcong commander. His role, however, would soon change…

Bijan: What inspired you to accept the play the character of “Long” in “Journey from the Fall”? Is it true that you first had a shorter part in the movie?
Long Nguyen: After I read the script for the first time, I had goose-bumps all over. I had a feeling that this is my part. At that time, Ham Tran ( the director )and Lam Nguyen (the producer) told me they already cast me in the part of the camp commander. So I waited till they had an open-audition, then I came in as the “Long” character, giving the interrogators my confession speech. A few weeks after a call-back audition, they wanted me to play “Thanh”, the best-friend
character. About 2 weeks before the shoot, they promoted me to play “Nam”, the boat captain . And finally, a day before the shoot, they called me from Thailand, saying that the actor playing “Long” part was too muscular, so they switched him to be the boat captain. So now the “Long” part was mine,
because I’m skinny enough to play the part of a starving prisoner.

Bijan: Do you remember the last days of Saigon before it fell? Did your memories help you to play the part of Long?
Long: Yes, I remember it vividly. And it definitely helped: the crushing crowd outside the fence of the US embassy the day before, the panicky fear on the streets, listening to the radio the news of the taking-over of the presidential palace while on the boat,…

Bijan: Your scenes in re-education camps look quite real. Had you ever spend time or visited one of those camps?
Long: No, I never get to see a real camp. I did hear lots of stories. Besides camps for political prisoners, they also have camps for “Boat People” who were caught escaping Vietnam. My father, grandfather and uncle were in those for almost a year. For this film, the set designer did lots of research and constructed an actual camp in Thailand. The camp got flooded three times before the shoot. When I got there, it was still 1-foot deep in the mud.
The reality of the set, the itchy burlap costume, the diet; all those conditions put me in character fairy quick. Also, some of the first-time actors are actually real prisoners, with their help, we hoped to make the daily activities and dialogues authentic.

Bijan: What was the most challenging aspect of your work in “Journey from the Fall”?
Long: Every scene was difficult. I guess the hardest one was the cricket-eating scene. And then the banana-eating scene, I had to eat 16 bananas .

Bijan: Do you think “Journey from the Fall” could help the world to better understand what the people of Vietnam have gone through?
Long: I hope so. But, it is also for ourselves. I talked to many refugees after the screening , and they told me that even though it brought back painful memories, it also helped them with grieving and facing the trauma of losing friends and families. In that way, I think this film touched something universal, we can all relate on the pain of separation from your loved ones. 


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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