Journey From The Fall

March 13, 2006


The countdown to opening night of the film festival being only a few days now, I'm going to kick off Hyphen's SFIAAFF movie blogging -- with the closing night film. But this is not going to be a review, the way you expect films to be reviewed. There's a fine review by Ravi Chandra (Hyphen subscriber & friend :) ) all wrapped up and ready to roll, which you can find here. No need for me to reinvent that wheel.

This is more of a meditation on what "Journey from the Fall" surfaces for me and perhaps other 2nd-generation Vietnamese Americans like me. This is a movie my parents saw before I did. This is a film they asked me to see. Because through it, they hope I will see a war I never witnessed, and have never quite known how to form my own opinion about.

You may have heard before, from some other Vietnamese American kid growing up in the States, how raw it felt whenever our country, that war, came up in social studies, in passing remarks, in movies... Always, Viet Nam was spoken in someone else's bitterness, someone else's shame or anger or loss. I grew up in a sea of my parents' mourning: everything that had been taken from them they superimposed on everything they were trying to rebuild. And so it was never just the past -- it was also the rosy-if-third-world future they'd seen on their honeymoon, the perfectly-obedient-Vietnamese (not Vietnamese American) children they would have had, if only all the forces that had created us would have just stopped and let us be. My family was tethered to a frozen moment, a flight from a garden that existed nowhere now on earth.

The US withdrew from Sai Gon in 1975; I started school in 1978. My teachers were not deliberately political, and I don't have a memory of being singled out for humiliation. But I remember cringing when the recriminations flew around me, not sure if I was actually at fault. I took after my dad in developing an aversion to any movie about Viet Nam. The US seemed intent on winning on screen the war it had lost in real life: killing in fantasy or studio the vermin they had not eradicated in villages overseas. And even though, as an ex-Navy officer for the South Vietnamese, my father had no qualms about Viet Cong dying -- I suspect that like me, watching these staged massacres, he did not feel far enough from the line of fire.

But if I couldn't take Hollywood's word for what happened to us, neither would I really take my parents'. In neither case, it seemed, were the implications for me quite favorable. Then I left for college. There I learned that the Viet Cong were heroic freedom fighters and the US were post-colonial oppressors, which made both my parents *and* Hollywood wrong, which really seemed quite perfect. If you were formed in the kind of Marxist/ ethnic studies/ post-colonial studies crucible that I was, then you have likely heard this third representation of the war -- one that serves a larger and admirable anti-imperialist doctrine, but I think, has refused to listen to the stories of Vietnamese refugees in order to keep its convictions firm, its denunciations clear. And I wonder if, between the two Western representations I've mentioned here, the academic account hasn't done the greater disservice to Vietnamese refugees -- given its professional obligation to educate, and its political boast to champion the oppressed.

But as the resources for movie production and distribution move increasingly out from under the thumb of big studios, the movie screen becomes increasingly a place (perhaps the place) for dissenting voices, even overtly political case-making. In movie theaters arguments are won, public opinion formed or changed; interestingly, the American public will pay for a ticket and some popcorn to be educated. And so in Journey from the Fall, a film (as Ravi says) of, by and for Vietnamese Americans, we have a different Viet Nam war on screen than the one that plagued my childhood. We have the images my parents have wanted me to see for thirty years, so that I could make up my mind as to who was really on my side. Hope my fellow armchair Marxists are lining up for their tickets; time to get a little more edumacated.


erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



I saw this film last night and thought it was the best film I've seen all festival. I am not Vietnamese, so it opened up my eyes to the Vietnamese experience. I know boat people, and I thought I knew what that meant. But I don't think I really understood what that refugee experience was like until I saw it portrayed last night. Film is so powerful that way. For me, I felt like I got schooled. But I am wondering what it was like for Vietnamese seeing this film.
Response to comment above:The film is trying to address a hardship that hasn't been addressed to. The affects of the war is still strongly present in modern-day Vietnam. Millions of Vietnamese suffer from a stateless, an absence of nationality. There are still many overseas ethic Vietnamese who have either been affected through physical means (3 generations of Angent Orange deformalities still present), or emotional mans (many overseas Vietnamese who still struggle with their identity).The American segment is showing that even then, they will never be able to be called legimate Americans because of their ethnicity, immigration, social status (lowest rung BTW), and inability to speak English. So without the fallen Vietnam to call their country, and America who will not allow them to call it their country, where are they placed?Please try to immigrate to a country that doesn't speak your language. Go to that country with no hopes of coming back or desire to come back to your home because that home has been burned down. Start at the lowest social rung and pick up cans for cash such as Ba Noi in the film.Perhaps that will help you realize and feel emotionally the tragedy in being a displaced individual and help you understand what the film is trying to talk about.
thanks for the comment, ALW. would love to hear more Vietnamese -- and non-Vietnamese -- reactions myself.
I read the review and from thesetwo comments, it seems only painfullypoetic praise can be given to a film,that is fairly "ARTY". I'll admit thatthis film had its emotional strong point . I guess everyone elsewants to ignore and 1-dimensionalAmerican segment over the entirein favor of the cinematicallypowerful and emotional Vietnam segments.The segments in Vietnam were powerful,there was a sense or urgency, a sensethat something was to be lost and atstake. When they move to America, Ifound the film to become painfully cliched in its portrayal. This isn'tto belittle the filmmakers ownexperience, but basically nothing of interest happens.The child has no immediate parents topay attention to him, and only a grandmother who picks up cans from the street. Part of me wanted to feel sorry and the other just didn't care.When the child gets beat up for somereason I couldn't fathom and the principal becomes some 1-dimensionalI don't give a shit cuz i'm white guy,i lost all my trust in the filmmakerand his story. I began to see theall too coincidental fortunate turnof events, when families get reunited.The filmmaker turned his hand and revealed his painfully unartisticmethod of developing sympathy for his characters. It became a pity partyi wanted no part in.Basically he lost my emotional involvement because i began to seehis obvious bias. There was a sort ofbitterness in his portrayals thatjust didn't seem justified.Maybe I'm just an asshole who didn'tlike the film, and thought it was awaste of time. Maybe I'm just jadedand felt nothing for these characters.Maybe i hate it for not being Hollywoodenough.but honestly i didn't find this filmthat moving just because a father is dead and they had a hard time in America. maybe im just a cold heartless bastard.