Given the unfair ragging our countries’ immigrants are receiving of late, the time could hardly be better for a film like Journey from the Fall, an aching look at the rigors experienced by a people denied a true place in the world to call their own. Says the director in a telling personal statement on the film’s website: “The short chapter in American history books about the Vietnam War ends on April 30, 1975, the day American forces pulled out of Vietnam. Our story begins where the history books end.” Journey from the Fall in no way makes up for the entirety of this self-absorbed ignorance on the part of the West, but its affecting emotional gusto is impressively driven by an honest-to-god desire to tell a story that, above all else, inarguably deserves to be heard.
Under the iron fist of the newly empowered communist party, millions of Vietnamese citizens attempted to flee their homeland in this devastating aftermath—many made it to America, but far more died in their attempts to start a new life, either killed outright by militaristic forces or thrown into any number of reeducation camps in which death was the only likely path of departure. In Ham Tram’s film, an idealistic Long (Long Nguyen) opts to stay behind to fight for his countrymen’s freedom while his family escapes to America, setting into motion a fractured family history that is all too common for the oppressed people of the world. The first half of the film toys moderately with the chronology of its series of unfortunate events, as if the memories of these long since passed trials were surfacing in inconsistent fragments; later, the film adopts a more schematic approach that remains grounded thanks to Tram’s no-nonsense tactics. His camera regularly evokes the perspective of someone who has bourn witness to these events, with the fear of what exists outside the frame causing just as much anxiety as that which the image encompasses.
Tram’s intense research into this little-documented chapter of history is impressively on display in the film’s great period detail, but more impressive is his attuned attention to the ways in which familial bonds are obstructed by geopolitical forces; entire generations are defined by their separation, with mothers and fathers, daughters and sons estranged across entire continents and oceans. Tram is more interested in the spiritual anguish that extends from these injustices than the specific details of the conflict that shaped them in the first place, and while Journey from the Fall doesn’t render its time and place in simplified history book terms, this emphasis allows his film to speak rather universally on the manners in which entire population’s collective life stories are shaped by events largely beyond their control.
Journey from the Fall‘s polished aesthetic sheen lends it a sometimes misguided aura of sentimentality, and while its potentially pandering appeal to Oscar voters is an inadvertent quality that nonetheless makes one yearn for a rougher evocation of its godless world of injustice, its unflinching look at the tumultuous events that shape these lives isn’t so easily dismissed. Abandoning most sentiments to a more traditionally schematic plot structure, the film is daring in its refusal to assure the audience that everything is going to be okay. Even the final act, set primarily in California, is deeply unsettling in its evocation of culture shock, our protagonists’ worldly displacement a constant reminder of their former suffering. Journey from the Fall is strikingly honest but far from lacking in hope; more than anything, its final shot suggests the power of the human spirit to overcome.