The closing night film at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, “Journey From The Fall,” is the first feature film from my former UCLA classmate, Ham Tran. Even before making his award-winning student thesis, “The Anniversary” (2004), the director was focused with bringing to the screen the story of millions forced into re-education camps and the high seas after the Communist take over of Vietnam in 1975. Foremost for Tran, who came to the US in 1982 at the age of 8, was the need to specifically create a film about the war years from a Vietnamese perspective.
“Journey From The Fall” is the epic story of a divided family’s painful struggle to reach America. The film was shot by acclaimed DP Guillermo Rosas (“Before Night Falls”) and features performances from many top Vietnamese actors including screen veteran Kieu Chinh (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Green Dragon”) and pop singer Cat Ly. For many of the Vietnamese actors and technicians who worked on “Journey From the Fall,” the film proved to be a cathartic experience, since many had been survivors or were family members of those who had lived through conflict in Southeast Asia.
I caught up with Ham Tran this past weekend by phone in Los Angeles as he was getting ready to make his way up for the festival.
SF360: First of all, congratulations on your closing night screening. It’s fantastic.
Ham Tran: Thanks. I’m excited.
SF360: How important to you is the screening this week at the Palace of Fine Arts?
Tran: For me, it is very important because it has to do with grassroots effort. I think ultimately the success of this film is all about the audience.
SF360: It’s like a second battle. We spent five years in production on ‘I Am A Sex Addict.’ Now, it’s going from video store to video store leaving postcards and putting up posters to get ready for the opening. It’s kind of overwhelming. Sometimes it seems like every screening can be a make or break.
Tran: I’ve learned not to plan too much. I just try to make the best of every screening because you never know who’s gonna be coming to watch.
SF360: Is the film going to be shown in Vietnam?
Tran: Right now, I don’t know, because of the political nature of the film. We could not get permission to shoot in Vietnam. Vietnam as a filmmaking industry is growing and becoming really liberal. When we did the work-in-progress screening back in April, 2005, there was a woman who worked for a Vietnamese TV station in Vietnam. She had seen the film, and she said ‘You know what, I’m going to see if I can help you guys to get this film screened.’ That gave us a lot of hope. We’re still following up on that lead.
SF360: But other than that, there’s not been any official word from the higher-up film organizations?
Tran: The censorship is strict over there. Back in November or December, there was an article that was sent to me from a Vietnamese newspaper. It said that this film was an anti-communist film. And when I read that, my heart froze just a little bit. Does that mean I’m black-listed now? But apparently, our website is still accessible in Vietnam. We were thinking that once we actually have the theatrical distribution, I actually want to submit a letter to the film board over there, to see if there’s a way that we can screen the film in Vietnam.
SF360: I read in an interview in which you said that it’s important for the Vietnamese community to turn out for Vietnamese movies. Do you differentiate between the cinema coming out of Vietnam and the movies made by people who live outside of Vietnam – or are they all one and the same?
Tran: They’re all one and the same. I think that to think otherwise is actually harmful to us as a community. One of the major problems that I feel with the Vietnamese community here is that there is so much bitterness and pain that’s still harbored when it comes to anything from Vietnam. A Vietnamese theater group can come over here and the community will not go to see them, and on top of that, they protest. For me, that’s really divisive. I think that in order to move on, there are certain things you have to acknowledge and let go, and open up to discussion. It’s up to the youth now to bridge that gap between the two communities.
SF360: Could you ever actually see yourself going to Vietnam and making a film there?
Tran: That would be my dream come true, actually. I do want to be able to go back there and shoot a film. I feel at home there.
SF360: Let’s go to the beginning. How did the idea of the film come about?
Tran: The idea for ‘Journey From The Fall’ came when I was researching for my short film, ‘The Anniversary’. I came across this Time-Life series on the Vietnam War. It was like a ten-volume set, and one of the last ones was on the aftermath of the war. One picture really struck me. It was of a woman who was burned, and she was being lifted from the boat during a rescue operation. The story was that her mother had poured boiling hot water on her to keep her from being raped by pirates. After I saw that, I started talking to a number of my friends. One in particular was a boat person, and her father was in a re-education camp. Their boat had been adrift for 21 days, and they were hit every other day by pirates. She watched this one woman – every single time the pirates would attack them, there was one woman who was sure to get raped. By the time they had landed, she went insane.
So I started gathering data, and I researched this film for three years.
SF360: From what I’ve read, the film also came out of the idea that the Vietnamese experience has not been represented in the Hollywood mainstream.
Tran: Exactly. For me, making ‘The Anniversary’ was the first step, because the short was about the Vietnam War as a civil war. And that has never really been looked at in that way. I felt when I made ‘The Anniversary,’ it was something that the Vietnamese community needed to begin a healing process. Because we are all victims of circumstance. We’re here as refugees. We were seeking political asylum. We didn’t up and decide one day to leave Vietnam. We had to leave Vietnam. And I feel that that’s left a very deep scar within the community, and it hasn’t quite healed yet. I think a lot of people take it for granted that there are Vietnamese immigrants here. Nobody really takes the time to find out why they are here.
SF360: To you, what’s the biggest misconception Hollywood perpetrates about Vietnam?
Tran: The Vietnam War was a war of independence. It was our civil war, and it tore families up. And every time you watch Hollywood films about Vietnam, it’s always America versus Vietnam. For us, the re-education camps were like the Vietnamese Holocaust on a really small scale. But it did happen. It happened to over 200,000 Vietnamese. And the boat people…I mean, between 1975 and 1990, there were 2 million people who fled by boat, and lord knows how many hundreds of thousands of people died on the way. This has never been talked about. It’s an authentic Vietnamese experience.
SF360: Is this story based on a single true story or several stories?
Tran: It was a collage of a lot of stories that I have researched along the way. The only way we made this picture was through the community contribution. It was really a group effort. Our make-up artist was a boat person, our costume designer was a boat person, her father was in prison for – I don’t know how many years, eight or something. Everybody who was involved had a personal connection to the film.
SF360: How difficult was the shoot?
Tran: I have so many war stories. Our set for the re-education camp was flooded four times.
SF360: What happened?
Tran: We shot that on a piece of farm land in Thailand. It was perfect for the location we needed, but the farmer said ‘There is only one thing. One day out of the year, we have a flood.’ He added, ‘But that’s not going to happen, because the government just built this huge dam that’s going to control the flow of rain water’. So we built the set and sure enough, one week before shooting, it flooded. And the water went up ten feet. We had planted a field of corn. The flood took all the corn away. So he had to repaint the entire camp, and then the next night, it flooded again. When we flew back to prep for the shoot, the week before, I had to visit the camp location in a canoe. We were paddling by the rooftops of our set, saying, ‘OK, if the water comes down, we’re going to shoot here.’
SF360: Did Guillermo Rosas shoot all of the footage overseas?
Tran: Yeah, he shot all of this stuff in Thailand.
SF360: I heard you guys met under interesting circumstances.
Tran: We met when he came to UCLA with Julian Schnabel to talk about ‘Before Night Falls.’ After he was rushing down the corridors, I chased him down and said ‘Hi, my name is Ham Tran, I’m about to shoot my thesis, and it’s going to be in Vietnam.’ And Vietnam was the word that caught his attention. because then he turned to me and said ‘Vietnam! I was there 10 years ago. I would really like to go back.’ So he gave me his number in Mexico and said ‘Give me a call when you’re ready with the script and everything.’ So I did, and I was really persistent, and finally, the schedule worked out. He was able to go back to Vietnam and shoot.
SF360: Somebody else is listed as shooting some of the film. Julie Kirkwood.
Tran: She was the DP who shot all of the stuff in America. We had shot over our schedule, and by the time we came back, Memo had to shoot a film in Mexico.
SF360: Did she set up to replicate what Guillermo had shot? What was the guidance you gave her as far as coming up with a look?
Tran: When I had spoken with Memo, it was always planned that America was going to look 100 percent different. I told Memo that I wanted America to look flat and ugly. More than anything, I wanted that aged look to it. That’s what I was talking to Julie about. And she suggested this more old-photo look to it. That was music to my ears, because my production company is Old-Photo Films. I was like, perfect. I think we’re on the same wavelength here.
SF360: Still, with all these production break-downs, was there ever a time you considered giving up?
Tran: There was actually one day that I wanted to walk away. I felt that I couldn’t do it anymore. And that was right after the storm sequence. We needed special effects and rain machines. Every special effect shot was $12,000-$20,000 for a five- or ten-second sequence. We just didn’t have that money. So I took all the pages of the storm and just trashed them. It was just by blind luck that when we were prepping to do another scene, I saw this storm cloud coming. I just asked everybody ‘Hey, guys. Can you just trust me, and we will just wing it?’ And they said ‘OK, fine. What do you need?’ I was on the boat with the actors, and I had to hide in the engine compartment and shout out directions. I told Memo, ‘Whatever you do, just keep the cameras rolling.’ At the end, I turned to Memo and asked, ‘Did we get it?’ He misread my face and thought I was getting a kick out of it. To me, it was just sheer exhaustion. When we all got back into the boat, I apologized to every single extra. Those guys really suffered.
I thought that I didn’t know how to direct this film anymore. Basically it’s a fine line between making your actors suffer in order to get the film, and weighing that against making a film about people who have suffered through this terrible ordeal on the boat. I was about to walk away from the whole thing, but my production designer told me, ‘Everybody knows what they signed on for, and they’re doing this because they’re passionate about it. They’re still here.’
SF360: This was in Thailand?
Tran: In Thailand. Pretty much everything that takes place in Vietnam was shot in Thailand.
SF360: How long did that shoot go for?
Tran: In total, seven and a half weeks.
SF360: And the United States shoot, how long did that go on for?
Tran: The States was two and a half weeks. It was a ten week shoot.
SF360: That’s pretty quick!
Tran: I don’t know how we were able to do it. Actually, when people ask me how we were able to make this film, I would sincerely have to look at them and say, ‘I don’t know how.’(Tran laughs) But somehow it got done.
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