Ham Tran’s first full-length feature is an intriguing mix of history, moral-values and betrayal. This version of the timeless struggle of families torn apart by the ravages of war takes its opening cue from the Fall of Saigon.
Long (stoically played by Long Nguyen) opts to stay and battle the Communists (“If we don’t fight – who will?”) His wife Mai (Diem Lien, extraordinarily credible on the voyage but loses her inner fire in the U.S. ) is furious that she has no say in the most important decision of the young couple’s lives. With son Lai (too coincidentally named after the protagonist in the mythological tale of Kim Quy whose story Tran uses to glue the ancient past to the present; Nguyen Thai Nguyen does a commendable job in the role but, like his mother, lacks emotional steam once stateside) and mother-in-law Ba Noi (Kieu Chinh brilliantly combines sage dignity with inner rage) they join the millions of boat people who’ve come before them and set sail for the land of hope.
To bring his points home, Tran (who also wrote the script and serves as his own editor—financially sound, but a disinterested pair of eyes in postproduction might have been able to tame the sprawling length) thrusts, darts and parries scenes to juxtapose Long’s “re-education,” the daily terror of his family’s escape, and the marvellously innocent home-movie footage of earlier days. Yet even those idyllic frames become imbued with fear as the kite-flying outing morphs into another lost, innocent soul.
Much is made of the oppressive irony as Long declaims “I fought to keep my country free” to his commandant who vacillates between a man of letters (quoting the Romanian-born, lyric-French philosopher E.M. Cioran, no less) and a sadistic beast who sends his “students” to walk through fields in search of mines. The unrepentant Major brutally beats Long for a sarcastic joke then sends him to the “box” (piously fronted by a pair of men lashed to stakes in the best Good Friday tradition).
The visual overload of suffering (exquisitely captured by cinematographers Julie Kirkwood and Guillermo Rosas) robs the film of searing angst and replaces that with near-tiresome overkill.
At wits’ end and in the company of Long’s comic-relief compatriot Thanh (Jayvee Mai The Hiep), the pair makes a dash for their own freedom and slim chance of reuniting with their loved ones. “To get life you have to cross death.” Suddenly, the film’s aflame with possibility, pulse-quickening drama and, of course, a further layer of treachery. This magnificent sequence shows Tran’s considerable ability to scrape beneath the surface of narrative and bring compelling human experience into the hearts and minds of any race.
Sadly, he never finds the magic again: time passes, rather than vanishes. Fortunately, Christopher Wong’s thoughtful score—particularly the serene alto flute and poignantly-effective string writing—supports the action and lifts the impact of so much death and destruction out of the mud and into the realm of self-reflection.
The closing array of metaphors from the Golden Turtle God’s quest for his sword—fashioned from Coke cans (eerily reminiscent of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens and their mystical ring)—to the paper inscribed wishes floating heavenward on a handmade kite verges on saccharine. Yet, at least, this brings partial closure to another of the seemingly endless chapters from the worldwide history of shameless power grabs masquerading under the guise of ideology.