Journey from the Fall (2006)
Director: Ham Tran.
Starring: Kieu Chinh (Ba Noi, Grandmother), Long Nguyen (Long), Diem Lien (Mai), Jayvee Mai The Hiep (Thanh), Khanh Doan (Nam), Cat Ly (Phuong), Nguyen Thai Nguyen (Lai).
one Vietnamese family's experience as Vietnamese boat people
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Long is being dragged to an isolation shed where he is locked up.
Da Ban Re-Education Camp, Vietnam, 1981. Long looks through a hole in the shed.
April 30, 1975. South Vietnam falls under communism. Long and his family are trying to flee the country. His wife is Mai and his young son Lai. Also living with them is Long's mother Ba Noi. Long screams: "The Americans have abandoned us. They've broken their promises." He tells his wife to take his mother and their son to the boat. He says he is staying, an idea which Mai does not like one bit.
Ca-Mau, Vietnam, 1979. Long's family is waiting for the time they can start leaving to get onto an escape boat.
Vinh-Long, Vietnam, 1975. A sign over the re-education camp says: "Re-education is good." The guards come in to re-education class and tell Long and other inmates: "Everyone out! Move it!" Everyone that is except Long. The teacher talks to him. He says that Long is a traitor to his country. He dared oppose the Revolution and he cooperated with the Americans. When Long asks the teacher: "Where is your smile?" the teacher hits him. Long is put in the isolation shed. Later another inmate is put in the shed. He tells Long that he cut off his index finger to avoid the draft. Long refers to him as "clowns like you . . ."
Suoi Mau Camp, Vietnam, 1977. Mai visits her husband. She is very upset, so her husband tells her to tell him that she in happy. Otherwise he won't have the strength to survive the camps. Long tells his wife that if the opportunity comes, she should take the family and go.
Start of the Voyage. Neighbor Tuan comes over to tell the family that they are heading out for the boat. He introduces a pretty young woman named Phuong and his mute little brother to the family. He then divides the group into two so they will be less likely to be noticed and captured. Mai and Lai go with Tuan.
Back to Isolation. Long tells one of the inmates that his mother, wife and son escaped in 1977, but the coast guards sank their boat.
Da Ban Re-Education Camp, 1979. Long breaks his leg in a logging accident.
Getting to the Boat. Tuan, Mai and Lai make their way through a mangrove swamp. They get onto a small boat and Tuan paddles out on to the water. They arrive at the larger boat and are put in the hold. Grandmother, Phuong and Tuan's mute brother are already in the hold. The boat men tell everyone to be quiet. The coast guards are very close. Phuong tells Mai that her father is in a re-education camp.
Back at the Camp. Binh and Phuong's father were supposed to escape together, but Binh has to break the bad news to his close friend that his wife could only get enough money for one person to escape, namely her husband. Binh cries over having to tell his friend the bad news. Phuong's father gives Binh a picture of Phuong and asks him to give it to Phuong in the United States and tell her that her father loved her. Later the guards take Binh out and shots are heard.
On the Boat. The people in the hold, mostly women and children, are getting very sick and are throwing up. Lai is given some water but says it tastes like gasoline. The boat reaches open waters.
Back at Camp. Phuong's father tried to escape and stepped on a land mine. He dies and Long cries over him. In the nearby river, some inmates try to float by the camp, but are killed by the guards in the tower. The camp Major tells Long to pick some men and clear the fields of the mines. The Major beats Long after he tells a joke about re-education camps. Back to isolation he he goes.
On the Boat. Phuong says her father died in the Suoi Mau Re-education camp. Mai says her husband also died in the Suoi Mau Re-education camp clearing land mines. Lai does not know that his father is dead. Mai remembers happier times when the family was ail together.
Back at Camp. Long has a visitor. It is Phuong's wife. She tells Long about her search for her husband. They finally showed me his fresh grave. She adds: "They have lost their humanity." For this the guards strike her. She leaves with her last words being: "Keep hope alive!" In the latrine he reads a message he got from her saying "use leaves in toilet." He looks through the leaf-covered walls and finds two photos of his family in California and a home-made notebook from his son. Long cries.
On the boat. The engine stops and Mai investigates. She demands from the boat owner Nam to know what is the problem. The problem is that if they don't get the engine started the boat will drift toward the waters off Cambodia where there are a great many pirates. We learn that Tuan was caught.
Back at Camp. Tuan is now in the camp. A guard steps on a land mine setting off a panic and others step on land mines. In the mass confusion, Long and Tuan make a run for it. They take the guard's body and throw it over the barbed wire and then climb over it. A guard shoots Tuan in the leg. Long and Tuan escape into the jungle. They come upon a peasant woman. Tuan grabs the older lady and scares the hell out of her. Long forces Tuan to let her go. He then gets the lady to promise she won't tell anyone about them. She agrees, so they let her go.
On the boat. The boat people catch rain water in bowls and on plates. The boat is now running an S.O.S. flag. It is about mid-August. At night they are attacked by pirates. They grab many of the children and some women. Grandmother tries to stop a pirate assaulting her daughter by throwing boiling water on him, but she misses and mostly hits Mai with it. She is badly burned.
Escape from Camp. Tuan and Long come to a waterfall. There the guards suddenly appear and shoot Long in the shoulder. The men are able to get away by crawling behind the rocks. The escapees head downriver. Just when Long thinks he has slipped the guards, a guard shoots him in the back. The old lady told on them. She cries when identifying Long's body. A shot is heard (presumably killing the old lady).
In Orange County, California, USA, 1981. Three Mexican school boys beat the stuffing out of Lai. The principal calls in grandmother. He tells her in English that her grandson has an emotional problem. He does not get along with the other children. And for father's day he drew a father's face with tears coming from his eyes. Grandmother understands little of what was said. She agrees with Lai not to tell his mother. Mai's chest is extremely scarred from the accident on the boat. She now takes English language courses. In dodge ball, Lai throws the ball really hard at one of his attackers and breaks the boy's thumb. The principal suspends Lai. Grandmother and Lai get into a disagreement over how to raise Lai. Grandmother complains that Mai is never home, that she is emotionally cold to the boy and that Lai needs his father. The dispute is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a pretty Vietnamese girl who asks Mai if she is Mai. The young woman turns out to be Phuong. Mai and Phuong embrace. Mai tells her that Nam, the boat owner, brought her and her family to California. Phuong tells them that her uncle helped her. They invite Phuong to supper, where Nam gets to see Phuong too.
One day after school the three Mexican boys catch Lai to give him another beating. But this time Nam is there to prevent the assault. At home Lai writes a letter to his father. His grandmother takes all his letters and places them in a box she hides.
One day when Mai and Phuong are in the mall, Binh stops in front of Phuong and asks if she is Phuong. He takes out the picture of her that her father had given him and shows it to her. He tells her that he has carried it around for two years while he searched for her. Binh tells Phuong that the camp where her father really died was the Da Ban Re-education Camp. He adds that her father always loved her. Alone, Phuong doesn't want to believe what Binh told her about the Da Ban camp. And Mai is now wondering if her husband might still be alive but at the Da Ban camp.
In the house Mai asks Nam for some advice. She thinks there is a small possibility that Long may still be alive. She has no proof, but she has a feeling that Long is alive. Nam advises her to find Long.
One day at home Mai receives a call from the principal asking if she has signed Lai's suspension slip yet. Mai is taken by surprise. She starts looking for the suspension slip and finds her mother-in-law's hidden collection of Lai's letters to his father. She sits down and starts reading them. Grandmother comes home and Mai gets into another dispute with her. She protests that not telling Lai that his father is dead is hurting Lai emotionally. He has skipped school for the last three days. Lai comes home to the dispute and tells his mother that he hates her. Grandmother slaps Lai for this remark. Lai says his mother is never at home and she never says anything about his father, but only about Nam. Grandmother gives him another slap and he asks why she is hitting him. His mother responds by saying that she herself died when his father was taken from her. She says that she is nothing but a walking corpse.
The family argument was painful but good. Mai is able to apologize to her son for not being there for him. She promises that she will be there for him now and in the future.
Back to the jungle near the camp. In the river, Tuan picks up the pictures from the notebook that Lai sent to his father. He cries over the realization that Long is dead.
Orange County, California. Mai receives the notebook that Lai sent to his father. She burns the notebook page by page. Now she knows for sure that her husband is dead.
One year later. Mai, Lai, Grandmother and Nam fly a kite made of newspaper. They are much happier together.
The film is dedicated to the millions of boat people and victims of the re-education camps.
Good movie. But it is emotionally tough to watch. A great many terrible things happen to Long and his family. Caring for the family and wanting it to be reunited, it's rough watching all these terrible things as they happen to the family. It's one after another after another. The movie skips around a lot, but it was not that tough following it. The acting was very good. Tough, but still entertaining, the movie is worth viewing.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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