Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and melodrama is almost impossible. The writer-director Ham Tran achieves the impossible in “Journey From the Fall,” a sprawling tearjerker about a war-splintered South Vietnamese family trying to survive the aftermath of the American withdrawal and then seek a new life in the United States.
Set amid the chaos of late-’70s Vietnam, when the victorious North set about “re-educating” the defeated South, the film depicts one family’s endurance in sturdy, old-movie style, with sweeping camerawork, a monumental and occasionally intrusive orchestral score, gorgeous yet forbidding natural vistas and enough shocking tragedies, brazen escapes and crowd-pleasing acts of defiance to fuel several action-adventure pictures.
Its first half cuts between the plight of a former South Vietnamese Army officer, Long Nguyen (Long Nguyen), a die-hard partisan who endures imprisonment and torture in a re-education camp, and that of his mother (Kieu Chinh), wife (Diem Lien) and son (Nguyen Thai Nguyen), who are trying to flee the country via slums, jungles and swamps.
The relatives’ story line climaxes with a boat journey that shows refugees packed into a cargo hold like cordwood, enduring illness, claustrophobia and starvation. Its visceral portrait of suffering and perseverance matches the Middle Passage sequence in “Amistad.” Its horror resonates through the family’s eventual relocation to California, where they are confronted with diluted versions of the same problems they faced in Vietnam: deprivation, discrimination and a hostile dominant culture that pushes them to assimilate.
While Mr. Tran’s narrative is outlined in broad strokes, it is filled in with delicate brushwork. The script, which draws on survivor stories and the director’s own experiences as the child of boat people, compiles details that most Americans have never seen on screen: a newly arrived Vietnamese-American woman repudiating her ethnic identity, the better to forget past traumas; a knowingly absurd debate among prison camp inmates about the tastiest way to cook crickets.
The film echoes Michael Cimino’ s “Deer Hunter,” which followed American steel mill workers to Vietnam and back. At certain points (particularly the prison camp sequences, the film’s many improbable reunions and the recurring device of characters bonding over a pop song), “Journey From the Fall” seems to answer Mr. Cimino’s movie across the decades — not to rebuke it, but to remind the world that the extras Robert De Niro passed in the Saigon streets while searching for Christopher Walken lived, loved and suffered too, and that their stories deserve to be told.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ
JOURNEY FROM THE FALL
Written (in Vietnamese and English, with English subtitles) and directed by Ham Tran; directors of photography, Guillermo Rosas and Julie Kirkwood; music by Christopher Wong; production designers, Mona Nahm and Tommy Twoson; produced by Lam Nguyen; released by ImaginAsian Pictures. In Manhattan at the ImaginAsian Theater, 239 East 59th Street. Running time: 135 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Kieu Chinh (Ba Noi), Long Nguyen (Long Nguyen), Diem Lien (Mai Nguyen), Nguyen Thai Nguyen (Lai Nguyen), Jayvee Mai The Hiep (Thanh), Khanh Doan (Captain Nam) and Cat Ly (Phuong).