Whole Grain Pictures: Journey from the Fall (2006) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Whole Grain Pictures

Vietnamese writer-director Ham Tran’s searing antidote and closest analogue to Oliver Stone’s Vietnam refugee immigration drama Heaven and Earth, the 2006 multilingual Vietnamese-American historical epic Journey from the Fall, has had a difficult journey to its eventual blu-ray disc release from Whole Grain Pictures.  Despite ascending to major film accolades and critical adulation following it’s 2006 Sundance Film Festival screening, the film disappeared from the marketplace until newcomer boutique label Whole Grain Pictures saw fit to grant the true-to-life dramatization of the experiences of Vietnamese refugees whether it be in reeducation camps or hastily escaping by boat a fully furnished blu-ray disc replete with a full CD soundtrack album and extensive extras.  Looking at it as a newcomer years after inception, it manages to be even more devastating than the aforementioned Oliver Stone film and more down to Earth without that filmmaker’s hyperkinetic aesthete.  Mostly it’s the first major Vietnam War film from the Vietnamese outlook.

In April 30th, 1975, following the end of the Vietnam twenty-year civil war and subsequent exodus of thousands of refugees, Long Nguyen playing himself despite loyalty to the conquered South Vietnamese government elects to remain behind at his home in Vietnam.  Captured and imprisoned in a reeducation camp where he suffers a dehumanizing brutal physical and psychological ordeal, Ngyuen urges his wife Mai (Diem Lien), their son Lai (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) and mother Ba Noi (Kieh Chinh) to risk their lives by escaping across the ocean on a dingy fishing boat evading coast guards and ruthless sea pirates in the hope of reaching the United States land of freedom.  Cross-cutting between the past-and-present, juxtaposing Long Nguyen’s endurance and suffering with that of his family on the boat, their respective harrowing experiences soon shift over to the newly formed family life of immigration in the United States and all the difficulties including but not limited to Lai cutting classes and being generally rebellious.

The much-needed dialogue of pointing out what happened to the Vietnamese people after the American military withdrawal and how those who lived through the harrowing ordeal managed to carry on in a foreign land, Journey from the Fall though an extended and arduous journey nevertheless is a powerful saga of pain, sorrow, terror and finally acceptance of their newfound situation as long as everyone sticks together as a family unit.  

Shot in 1.85:1 by Guillermo Rosas and Julie Kirkwood with an appropriately somber score by Christopher Wong, the look and feel of Journey from the Fall is hot, encroaching, claustrophobic and suffocating for most of it before finally making its way to America where other problems await our family of refugees.  The cast of Vietnamese actors from Long Nguyen who has gone on to make quite a career in American movies, to Kiue Chinh as the grandmother and Diem Lien as Mai and later Cat Ly as Phuong, all give impassioned powerful performances conveying a wide variety of emotions from terror, grief, rage and finally some dogged measure of calm. 

Though released in North America in 2006, the punch-to-the-gut film all but vanished from the marketplace until very recently with the arrival of newly formed boutique label Whole Grain Pictures who have gone above and beyond the call of duty for such a clandestine foreign indie.  While the comparisons between it and Heaven and Earth are inevitable, this one somehow felt more authentic and less flashy, instead conveying the ordeals without pushing moviegoers out of their seats while conveying the alienation of trying to integrate into American society.  One of the best Vietnamese films ever made, this disc release from Whole Grain Pictures is splendid and marks an important forward step in curating or cultivating East Asian cinema either criminally overlooked or long overdue for reappraisal.  Not an easy film to sit through but a journey I’m proud to have taken.

--Andrew Kotwicki