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Asian American Film Canon Film Reviews

Ham Tran’s epic ‘Journey from the Fall’ is a heartbreaking look at the aftermath of the Vietnam War

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Journey from the Fall (2006).

Way back in 2007, as part of the press junket for Ham Tran’s epic film Journey from the Fall, actress Kieu Chinh was asked if the film “could help the world to better understand what the people of Vietnam have gone through.” Chinh responded by comparing the film to Steven Spielberg’s historical epic Schindler’s List, hoping that it could “help the world better understand what the Vietnamese refugees have gone through after the Vietnam War.” Though it was a lofty comparison at the time, Journey from the Fall does exactly that. 

Set sometime after the Fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975), Journey from the Fall portrays one Vietnamese family’s struggle for a better life after the Communist regime took control of the country. Family patriarch Long (Long Nguyen), who had formerly worked with the Americans, is quickly captured and thrown into a re-education camp for treason. Meanwhile, his mother (Kieu Chinh), his wife Mai (Diem Lien), and his son Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) are forced to face a tough decision: do they stick it out in this unrecognizable, new city where they could be close to Long, or do they attempt to flee the country like so many others? After a tense discussion with Long in prison, Mai and Long decide that the only option for their family to thrive is to escape, leaving Long behind. What follows is a harrowing account of nail-biting action, loss, and its heartbreaking aftermath–paying tribute to the thousands of Vietnamese boat people who experienced the same kinds of perils during that time period.

journey from the fall
Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) and Mai (Diem Lien).

Despite being an independent film with a budget of 1.6 million dollars, Journey from the Fall is a film that feels like an ambitious Hollywood endeavor, capturing the sweeping grandiosity of a war film without sacrificing its historical accuracy nor its deeply emotional roots (compare this to a film like Schindler’s List or the Vietnam War drama Heaven & Earth, which were made with budgets of 25 million and 33 million, respectively). Even with such a limited budget, this near-three hour film is one that clings on to hope amidst its dire circumstances. On that aspect alone, Tran has pulled off an incredible feat with what he was given.

Special attention should also be given to the film’s ambitious script written by both Ham Tran and Lam Nguyen, which leaps across time and space as it cuts between two different groups of people. Although it’s an unusual tactic that could confuse the viewer at times (and, not to mention, disperse some of the excellent tension that Tran occasionally allows to sputter out due to soft plot revelations), Tran manages to make it work through some clever writing–always making sure to draw a direct correlation between timelines. Journey from the Fall also has astonishing set pieces, including Vietnamese re-education camps, desolate jungles, and open-water boat backdrops that transports the viewer directly into the time period. The film takes special care to visually recreate these experiences as accurately as possible, even given that it was never filmed in Vietnam itself. But add on to that the heart-wrenching, empathetic performances by each of the film’s Vietnamese main cast, and it’s extremely surprising that Journey from the Fall hasn’t become required viewing in every single high school history class. 

journey from the fall
Lai, his grandmother (Kieu Chinh), and Mai.

Perhaps it’s that exact reason–the main cast–that Journey from the Fall isn’t a film that is as well known today as, say, Roland Joffe’s Oscar-winning The Killing Fields (which depicts Cambodia’s similar fall to Communism within the same time period). Unlike The Killing Fields, Green Dragon, or Heaven & Earth which all feature similar plot trajectories, Journey from the Fall is one that tells the story of Asian refugees strictly through their eyes–instead of peripherally through the lens of a white protagonist. Here, the four members of the family have to save themselves. Furthermore, Tran’s film depicts the haunted, traumatic aftermath of what happens even when a family fleeing a Communist regime has reached supposed safety in a promised land. Tran constantly reminds us that his characters never quite completely recover from the horrors that they have experienced, and it’s important to remember that their story is just one of many. 

As a Taiwanese American who had little to no knowledge of what happened to the South Vietnamese after the Vietnam War, Journey from the Fall is a film that inspired me to dig deeper and learn a little more about the war outside of what US history books taught me. It made me feel sadness, despair, and utter outrage that it’s a story that I’d been unaware of. I believe that all these years later, Chinh’s prediction was ultimately correct–it truly is the Schindler’s List for the South Vietnamese people.

Rating: 5 / 5   

Journey from the Fall is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #15 on that list.

To view the rest of the entries in this series, click here.

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Li-Wei Chu

Music and film lover from California.

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