The fall in Journey from the Fall refers to the fall of Saigon in 1975, a tumultuous time when American forces withdrew in defeat and American allies among the Vietnamese were left to cope with the conquering North Vietnamese communists. The film follows the story of Long Nguyen, who chooses to remain in Vietnam knowing that he will be imprisoned in a "re-education camp." Long’s wife, mother, and son, at his urging, escape by boat, embarking on a hazardous and adversity-filled journey seeking freedom.
Writer/director Ham Tran tells the parallel stories of Long and his family, jumping back and forth between their two story lines and jumping back and forth in time as well, the latter adding some unnecessary confusion to the exposition. With handsome cinematography by Guillermo Rosas and sympathetic performances by the lead actors, Journey from the Fall has the sincerity and conviction that comes from Ham’s close experience of this time in history.
Ham interweaves as well the legend of the historical character, Le Loi, in an attempt to tie the 20th century events to Vietnamese history, but it becomes a confusing reference. Held up as a hero, Le Loi led a revolution that liberated the Vietnamese from Chinese occupation in the 15th century. The logical parallel would seem to be the liberation of Vietnam from French colonial rule in 1954. (The United States, by 1954, was underwriting 80% of French expenditures in Indochina.) The victor in 1954 was Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. The subsequent division of the country into North and South Vietnam left Ho Chi Minh heading the north and United States puppets leading the south. By using the legend of Le Loi, Ham implies the North as the liberators, the south as dominated by a foreign country. But the family in the film is American-sympathetic, while the legend suggests they should be on the other side.
Ham also fails to provide sufficient motivation for Long’s choice to remain behind; surely he knew, having sided with the Americans, that he would be subject to imprisonment by the North Vietnamese. What did he think he might accomplish? Would not escape with his family have made far more sense? That the storyline chooses the former tack provides an opportunity to show the cruelty of the "reeducation" camps, but there’s little new insight in these sequences.
The scenes of mother, wife and son in the United States are of greater interest, pointing up the emotional toll and vulnerability of the immigrants. There are some genuinely moving moments in this latter part of the film, but the inconsistencies and the overwrought structure of the screenplay seriously dilute the overall effectiveness of Journey from the Fall.