Director Ham Tran loves old photos. He told me himself. He even named his production company Old Photo Films. Beyond mere fascination though, Tran’s love for old photographs captures so lovingly what Asian American cinema can be: a document of a community’s history, a lesson from the past, an image of our ancestors to excite us about the people we’ve yet to become. Not surprisingly, photographs have played a key role in Tran’s two most famous films, The Anniversary (2003) and Journey from the Fall (2006).
The Anniversary, Tran’s UCLA MFA thesis film, is set in wartime Vietnam. Tran throws us right in the middle of three stories: a family at home, a soldier in battle, and a monk in meditation. It’s a testament to Tran’s artistry that he cuts between the stories with the utmost delicacy, while still shocking us with possible connections that might be hallucinatory, might be prophetic, and might be terrifying. They’re tied together by a photograph which a father quickly grabs in the heat of war, and which is later held in reverence in a moment of surging pathos.
Everyone who saw The Anniversary knew that Tran had a future in feature filmmaking. The short turned heads in film festivals and was nominated for a student Academy Award. Enthusiasm for Tran grew, especially in the Vietnamese American community, when the budding director decided to continue the story of The Anniversary with his first feature, Journey from the Fall. A true communal project, Journey from the Fall was financed by Vietnamese Americans who believed they had a history to preserve and that Tran was the one to tell it. Tran collected stories from the community and tailored his scripts around what he heard. He listened to his actors – to the stories, the language, the rumbling courage to speak about their pasts.
And yet, Journey from the Fall bears the mark of a singular artist. As with The Anniversary, the feature plays with editing, cutting boldly across time and space to drive our emotions. The film is about the fall of Saigon, the re-education camps, and the lives of refugees uprooted to California. 80 minutes into the film, there is a sudden break, and we leave the muddy prisons of postwar Vietnam and find ourselves in Orange County, whose glitzy shopping malls seem a world away. Those two worlds are connected by the people forced to cross the Pacific. An effective dramatist, Tran shows how, beyond the physical movement of people, the worlds are also connected through culture. Vietnamese dishes find their way to Santa Ana, California, as do holidays and pop songs. Characters are haunted by memories of better days back in Vietnam, which Tran presents to us in grainy 16mm sequences.
And of course there are old photographs. In the middle of the film, the father is locked in a re-education camp and doesn’t know the fate of his wife and son, who attempted to escape following the fall of Saigon. In the camp, the father gets a visit from a stranger who tells him a horrific story about the inhumanity of the new regime. When she cries about a dead family member, a prison guard accosts her: “no crying allowed!” Afterward, she manages to sneak the father a package containing photographs of his family posing in front of a carousel in an America that, compared to the rank hell of the camps, can only be called a utopia. The father cries. And cries. In a prison where you are locked from not just the world but even your own tears, crying is an act of rebellion. The old photograph is the catalyst for remembrance, resilience, and resistance.
After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival and doing the festival rounds, Journey from the Fall came out commercially in diasporic capitals like Orange County and San Jose. Needless to say, many tears were shed. Audience members were reminded of their own memories as boat people or as refugees. Interest was sparked in a younger generation to ask their parents about their family’s experiences. Journey from the Fall crossed oceans and generations so that an uprooted community could start asking questions about their relatives and their countries. The film was, in other words, that old photograph before which we can shed a tear and reminisce on the journey that has taken us to where we are now.