In 10 Words or Less
After the Vietnam War, a family fractures looking for freedom
Loves: Beautiful films
Likes: Long Nguyen
Dislikes: War films, exceedingly long films
Hates: How evil man can be
There are plenty of movies about Vietnam, but they tend to focus on the war experience and the plight of the American veteran. Outside of Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth and Hans Molland's The Beautiful Country, there's been little exploration of Vietnamese life following America's involvement in the war. Picking up on some of the same themes seen in Molland's film, Journey from the Fall intimately explores the Communist treatment of those who supported the U.S. in Vietnam, the dangerous attempts to escape the country and the difficult lives they lived once arriving in America.
Though the title says journey, there are really two stories unfolding in this film, as husband and wife Long and Mai travel separate paths following the fall of Saigon. A patriot of the highest order, Long stays to fight for his country, after feeling abandoned by America, while he sends Mai, her mother and their son on the run to escape to America. For his efforts, he is thrown in a re-education (read; prison) camp by the Communist Party, while Mai undertakes a treacherous trip to freedom in the belly of a cramped smuggling boat. It's hard to say who has it worse, as you watch them suffer numerous torments and tortures.
The film flips through time like it's an old photo album, utilizing flashbacks and slick transitions to advance the story and hit all the important points of their lives. Long's brutal captivity is mirrored by Mai's self-imposed close quarters, reflecting their similar roles in their current place. All Long needs to do in order to gain "freedom" is reject his own and embrace Communism. That he won't shows how strong his beliefs are and how questionable his decision to not play along is. It's what makes him such a frustrating hero, as his will and heart are appealing but his unwillingness to bend make a happy ending unlikely. As much as Long Nguyen's steely gaze and determined face suggest a Vietnamese John McClane, this is not Die Hard, and the Communists weren't led by Hans Gruber.
Mai doesn't have an easy path ahead of her either, as if the high seas don't get her, intolerance and the struggles of a single mother will, as her young boy misses his father and is having trouble adjusting in school, while she tries to make a new life for herself. It's a heartbreaking reality for a family that goes through so much to better its life. That you will care so much about what happens about this family that's most likely quite foreign to your own is just a testament to the storytelling ability displayed by writer/director Ham Tran and the acting of the cast, including a star-making turn by Nguyen. This movie is just about perfect in everything it attempts, including a lush look that indicates Tran and his cinematographers, Julie Kirkwood and Guillermo Rosas, will be gifting us with incredible visuals for years to come. The only place the film stumbles is in terms of the length. It takes some endurance to get through two-plus hours of such heart-wrenching drama.
A two-disc set, Journey from the Fall is packed in a slipcased, single-width keepcase with a tray for the second DVD. The slipcase isn't really needed, as it just repeats the cover art, but it's there anyway. The main disc has an animated anamorphic widescreen menu with options to play the film, select scenes, adjust languages and see previews, while the second disc has a matching menu with the bonus material. Audio options include Vietnamese Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are available in English.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on this film is simply fantastic. The movie's color palette is muted, but what is there is captured perfectly by the DVD, as the greens and browns of Vietnam and the murkiness of the ocean waters look tight, aided by the high level of detail and and overall sharp image. There's not a speck of dirt or damage to be seen and the transfer is free of digital artifacts. This is the kind of film you can take stills from and make beautiful posters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack in impressively deep, with clean dialogue from the center channel and nice understated atmospheric effects in the sides and rear speakers. I expected a bit more during the more raucous scenes, but outside of that minor quibble, the audio is quite good, and features a nice dynamic mix that creates a quality sound field.
The only extras on the first disc are some previews, as the second DVD holds the bulk of the bonus material, starting with a 38-minute featurette, "The Making of Journey from the Fall." Centered around interviews with Tran and the cast and crew, and supplemented by on-set footage, the piece is a lively, well-produced look at how the film came together, using clips from the film to segue through the various parts of the film's production.
Some of the film's original marketing materials are up next, including the film's theatrical trailer, TV commercials and a scroll of press quotes. They are followed by a short deleted scene that didn't add much to the segment it was cut from, and a release reel made to promote the film, in English and Vietnamese. An alternate ending is also included, checking in at nine minutes in length, but for the life of me, I couldn't notice a difference with the finale of the finished film.
The background information section of the DVD is hugely welcome, at least by this reviewer, as the 32-minute historical piece, with notes about the political and social atmosphere of Vietnam, includes interviews with people who lived the film's story and is a great primer for those coming into the film without much knowledge of the time period. The section also includes 13 text bios of cast and crew members, and a text history of the legend of Le Loi, a folk tale that plays a big part in the film. There's more connection to real life in "Your Journeys," which has two interviews (10 minutes) with survivors of the Vietnamese unrest, who responded to a request for people to share their stories.
The final extra is the largest, the roundtable with cast and crew of the film. Rather than a sit-down with the participants, like the label would suggest, this is a feature-length video commentary with Tran, producer Lam Nguyen, composer Christopher Wong, actors Jayvee Mai The Hiep, Diem Lien and Kieu Chinh, costumers Jack Atlantis and Bao Tranchi and make-up artist Gordon Banh. Rather than sit the camera on the group while putting a picture-in-picture box of the film in the corner, the production shows a real effort, incorporating photos, sketches and even swapping the video sources when it's more important to see what the participants are talking about, rather than see who's talking. Considering the length of the track, the number of participants is a big help, as the discussion never drags, and maintains a comfortable, yet engaged feel that makes it an enjoyable and informative commentary, easily the best video commentary I've ever seen.
The Bottom Line
Just when you think you've seen how low humans can stoop, another chapter of history gets a bit of light shone on it, and you realize, it could always get worse (and has.) The post-war period in Vietnam hasn't been the most publicized era of horrors perpetuated by man, which makes this fictional portrayal of the period and its effects on the people who escaped so unique. That first-time director Tran has told that story with such skill and beauty makes it all the more special and all the more affecting. The DVD set keeps pace with the film, presenting the movie in excellent quality, with a deep and engaging collection of extras that are interesting and do a great job of adding to the film. If you can enjoy a film with subtitles and have the strength to deal with some brutal scenes, you can see a gorgeously-filmed tale of survival.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.