At once a historical epic, at another a moving story of a family destroyed, “Journey from the Fall” leaves very little uncovered. The film tells the tale of a Vietnamese family as they deal with the after-effects of America pulling out of Vietnam, and the Fall of Saigon to the Communists. Long, due to his fighting against the Communists during the war, is placed in Re-Education Camps (basically work-camps under the guise of “rehabilitation”) while his wife, child and mother attempt to escape Vietnam to America.
From a political aspect, the film hits on a number of relevant notes without beating you mercilessly over the head with them (unlike when a Communist officer beats Long over the head mercilessly with his opium pipe). For one, both America and the Communists claimed to be liberating Vietnam… but from who? The Vietnamese? I’m not going to go into too much regarding the ideaologies present behind the Vietnam War, but this rampant mis-use of “freedom” and “justice” in liberating a country that never asked to be liberated is the back-drop that floats behind the action, as you wonder why any of this had to happen to the family at all.
Told in two plot strings that loop and twist, the film gives ample time and focus to the tortured existences of both Long and his family. As Long is forced to catch logs in the river, clap at the rousing speech given by a Communist general condemning the audience to Hell and ultimately asked to lead a group of prisoners to clear a minefield, his family endures their own Hell as they are smuggled out of Vietnam with a large number of other Vietnamese in the cargo-hold of a small ship.
Long Nguyen’s portrayal of Long is amazing, as he brings depth to a person whose family has been ripped apart and life destroyed, only to live in the uncertainty of wondering from where and when the inevitable death in camp will finally take him. Diem Lien also sparkles, as the wife whose life is forever marred by the separation from her husband to the point where her actions and existence afterwards, despite ever moving forward for her family, are ultimately hollow.
Visually, the film is breath-taking. Guillermo Rosas and Julie Kirkwood’s cinematography bring the environments to life, from the lush jungles, raging rivers and dingy, tight boat’s hold. And yet the beauty of the imagery does not have the ill-effect of making the film look overly glossy or “fake.” A great part of that is the story, of course, but the cinematography never dominates, only enhances as it should.
My one major criticism, due to the split nature of the film, the interweaving of simultaneous storylines, is that there were moments where I wondered “What just happened? what did I miss?” but, in all, that’s actually a minor issue. Everything comes together, and as the movie continued to unfold the viewing experience was that much more enjoyable as I was able to put the pieces into place myself.
At points heartbreaking, at others uplifting, “Journey from the Fall” doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no Spielberg-ian ending, and people do get killed throughout… but that was the truth of the past. “Journey from the Fall” re-educates as well as entertains, but never takes the easy way out, nor does it preach. In the end, it’s a snippet of one family forever altered, and despite all the political undertones, it’s the human level on which the film succeeds most of all.