The American version of the Vietnam War generally ends on April 30, 1975, the day the last of the U.S. troops and diplomats boarded planes and helicopters and left Vietnam. But for many Vietnamese, especially for those who had been loyal to the toppled South Vietnamese government, the fall of Saigon and the takeover of the Communist Viet Cong government was only the beginning of a long, terrible journey. Many of these citizens, loyal to the former government, found themselves incarcerated in Communist "re-education" camps for years. Still more Vietnamese, many of them women and children, fled Vietnam for other Southeast Asian countries or America, and became known as the "boat people."
The journey of the "boat people" of Vietnam has never before been documented in an American film, but if it took this long to do it right, it was worth the wait. Writer/director Ham Tran did countless interviews with Vietnamese refugees and survivors of the re-education camps to make certain his script for Journey from the Fall was authentic. The scenes in the re-education camp are brutal; Tran and his production team had little to work with in the way of historical photographs, and none of the re-education camps exist anymore, so they had to re-create the setting largely from the compiled information they gained from interviewing survivors. Tran interweaves his tale with a Vietnamese tale about Le Loi, Emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Le Dynasty way back in the early 1400s.
The fictional family through whom we experience this journey ends up in this place simply because husband and father Long decides not to abandon Saigon, but to stay and fight the Communists and defend his country from itself. When Long decides to stay, his wife Mai, son Lai and mother Ba Noi stay behind with him. After the country falls and the Americans leave, Long ends up captured by the Communist victors and sent, with his fellow soldiers and anyone else the Communists deemed in need of retraining, to a re-education camp which, ironically, bears over its entrance a sign reading "Freedom is Everything." At the camp, the men are abused by the soldiers guarding them, told they are traitors, beaten, and locked in small, windowless boxes. Although when they are sent to the camps, they are told they will be released as soon as they've been re-educated, most of the imprisoned men seem to feel they will be killed eventually if they don't escape.
When Mai visits him at the prison, Long tells his wife that if the opportunity arises to "move to the New Economic Zone" (aka hop a boat to America), she should take his mother and son and go without him. Mai is heartbroken; she loves her husband and does not want to leave him behind in this place, but she also knows the reality that it's unlikely he will ever get out. So when the chance to get a boat to America comes up, Mai, Ba Noi and young Lai set out on their journey, ending up packed into the hold of a small fishing boat, where they must stay underneath with little fresh air until they are out in open waters, away from the Communist boats patrolling the waters around their country for citizens desperate to escape the new regime.
Tran takes the audience visually inside that dark, cramped space, packed with seasick women and children, so closely that you almost feel as if you're in that hold with them. Every sway of the ship on the waves, every sick and moaning child, feels so close that I was getting claustrophobic watching it. When the boat is attacked by pirates who indiscrimately kill, rape and abduct women and children from the hold, the fear of the women and children is palpable; watching these women trapped in a confined space, and attacked by gun-and-knife wielding pirates who tear young children out of their mothers arms, abducting and hurting at will, is almost unbearable to watch.
Eventually, though, Mai, Ba Noi and Lai do make it to America, along with Nam (Kham Doan), the kindly captain of the ship who has developed a fondness for Mai. They settle in Orange County and try to adjust to their new life in the middle of a community that both welcomes and disdains them -- Mai works long hours at a sweatshop to support them, but is hardly home to support her son. Ba Noi does most of the caregiving for young Lai, but even she is not up for the task of dealing with him getting in trouble at school -- for being the target of a group of bullies. Meanwhile, Long continues to while away the months at the re-education camp, certain he will never escape, until he receives news that his family made it to the United States alive. Hearing that his family has survived finally gives Long the impetus he needs in order to break out of the camp and attempt a harrowing escape from Vietnam to find and join his family.
Some excellent performances bolster the film. Khanh Doan, who plays Captain Nam, was originally cast as Long, but was unable to lose enough weight to look gaunt enough to look like a re-edcuation camp inmate. Long Nguyen, who was already cast for a smaller role, was called upon to take the lead -- with his wife expecting a baby in only a few weeks. Nonetheless, he took on the role, taking a break in there for the birth of his child, and his performance as Long is truly outstanding. Kieu Chinh, a veteran actress who was in The Joy Luck Club and numerous other roles, turns in her usual solid performance here as the gentle grandmother who holds the little family together through their hardship. Diem Lien, who plays Mai, was a popular singer in Vietnam; she shows here that she has acting talent to go along with those vocal chops, giving a deeply moving performance as the young wife and mother. I'd be remiss if I didn't also note an outstanding job by young Nguyen Thai Nguyen as Lai; the boy didn't even want to be in the film at first, but Tran persuaded him by asking if he could use his drawings for the story of Le Loi.
Journey from the Fall is beautifully shot, taking us from the jungles of Vietnam, to the bleakness of the re-education camp, to the horrific boat journey to freedom, to the streets of Orange County, where Mai, Lai and Ba Noi must make their way, the film takes you into the experiences the characters live through. Tran's attention to detail is evident throughout, especially in the depiction of the camps and the boat journey. It is this kind of loving attention and dedication to bringing the story of what happened to the Vietnamese left behind after America pulled out of Vietnam that makes this film a fitting homage to those whose real-life stories formed the framework of the script. Tran's film does honor to the memory of all who journeyed after the fall of Saigon, both those who made it, and those who did not.