The lasting images are of helicopter evacuations and chaos in the streets of Saigon. But where most Americans' mental picture of the war in Vietnam ends, "Journey From the Fall" begins. And it is a powerful place to start.
In the first half of writer-director Ham Tran's wrenching drama, the focus is on an anti-Communist stalwart named Long (Long Nguyen) who endures a series of re-education camps after his homeland's takeover by Communist forces in 1975. Long is a man of few words, especially after he is beaten repeatedly in an effort to break him of treasonous ideology and any notions of escape. But the prisoner is eloquent and incisive whenever he does speak, and Nguyen needs little dialogue to convey his character's epic struggle and strength; the full saga is always right there in his eyes.
As Long survives and plots, his family endures its own hardships. His wife, Mai (Diem Lien), tries to keep the faith at home but ultimately gives in to her husband's wishes that she smuggle herself out of the country along with their young son, Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen), and her mother-in-law (Kieu Chinh). One night they board an overcrowded boat and endure a horrific voyage that Long is told ends in their deaths. It might be true, especially given the film's jumbled chronology in the beginning. Then again, misinformation seems to be the one thing a person can rely on in these times. So we wonder.
For most of Act I, Tran ("The Anniversary") maintains a bleak but hopeful tone. We think we're headed somewhere familiar. And when the act comes to a close after about 75 minutes, it certainly feels like the end.
But then the director switches gears and all of a sudden we're plunged into a whole other film bathed in the sunlight of Orange County, Calif. , where Long's family has landed after their escape from Vietnam. The immigrant tale that unfolds over the next hour is something entirely unexpected -- a tunneling inward after so much emphasis on breaking free. It's not nearly as well acted or eventful as the first half, but in its own quiet way it's equally momentous.
Lai, adrift and missing his father, struggles to find his footing while his grandmother keeps filling his head with fantastical legends and false hopes. In time, he'll understand that sacrifice is what brought them to this new world and his duty is to honor that sacrifice by making a happy life. Kudos to the filmmaker for getting all of his characters to this epiphany with minimal sentimentalizing.
"Journey From the Fall" is a little too put together, particularly in Tran's jumpy editing and use of soft-focus. We probably don't need for one of Long's captors to quote existential philosopher Emil Cioran. But even when its wires are showing, the movie's soul is always evident.