Journey From The Fall
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Kieu Chinh Diem Lien Long Nguyen Thai Nguyen
Cast Crew
Kieu Chinh Kieu Chinh
as Ba Noi
Long Nguyen Long Nguyen
as Long Nguyen
Diem Lien Diem Lien
as Mai Nguyen
Nguyen Thai Nguyen Nguyen Thai Nguyen
as Lai Nguyen
Jayvee Mai The Hiep Jayvee Mai The Hiep
as Thanh
Khanh Doan Khanh Doan
as Captain Nam
Cat Ly Cat Ly
as Phuong

Kieu Chinh as Ba Noi(top)

Born in North Vietnam, Kieu Chinh has had two separate careers. In America, she has appeared in dozens of movies, from GLEAMING THE CUBE to THE JOY LUCK CLUB. She’s also played roles on almost every American TV show, from her first job on "M*A*S*H" to a recurring role on "Dynasty", with appearances on "Chicago Hope", "Fantasy Island" and "ER" in between. But before that she was one of Asia’s most famous actresses and a producer, who shot a movie on the front lines during the Vietnam War and who was arrested in Singapore as she escaped from Vietnam just two weeks after she had been in town doing press for one of her movies. Her filmography reaches almost a hundred movies.

Born in Northern Vietnam, Kieu Chinh’s mother died during World War II, when Chinh was very young. She emigrated for the first time in 1954 during the IndoChina War when France split Vietnam into two parts, Northern and Southern, and the Geneva Agreement gave everyone 300 days to decide where to live. Chinh’s family split into three parts: her sister moved to France, her father and only brother decided to stay in the North, and Chinh moved to South Vietnam. She never saw her brother or father again.

In 1957 she starred in her first film, The Bells of Thien Mu Temple and she soon became one of Vietnam’s most popular personalities. Speaking fluent Vietnamese, French and English she worked all over Southeast Asia, making movies in Japan, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. She also appeared in several American co-productions in Asia, including THE DEVIL WITHIN shot in India by Twentieth Century Fox, A YANK IN VIETNAM shot by Allied Artists, OPERATION: CIA with Burt Reynolds and DESTINATION: VIETNAM shot by Paramount.

Then, at the height of the Vietnam War in 1972, she produced and starred in WARRIOR, WHO ARE YOU? her most popular movie, shot on the front lines and cast almost entirely with soldiers. The male lead was played by a Lieutenant Colonel in the Special Forces and Chinh toured with the movie around the world, including the then-massive Asian Film Festival where she won "Best Actress" and the movie won "Best Movie Against the War".

As the Northern Vietnamese army approached Saigon in April, 1975, Chinh realized her life was in danger and she fled Vietnam on the last Pan Am flight to leave the country. Arriving in Singapore, where she had been two weeks earlier promoting her latest movie, she was immediately arrested at the airport because her passport was issued by a country, Vietnam, that no longer existed. From jail she managed to get in touch with some crew members she knew from a previous shoot and they bailed her out, but the Singapore government gave her 24 hours to leave the country. At the time, under international law, if an individual was in a country when his or her country fell to a communist government they would become a resident of that country. Chinh’s friends bought her a round-the-world ticket so that she could go from country to country, airport to airport, waiting for Saigon to fall. She flew from Singapore to Bangkok, then Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo. She continued to Paris, London and finally she landed in Canada on April 30, 1975. That same day, Saigon fell and she officially became a refugee.

Chinh had fled Vietnam in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans with nothing but her pocketbook containing now-useless Vietnamese currency and her address book. Making her way to a social services agency called Welcome House, Chinh was given some donated clothing, $75 for food, and a series of interviews with job placement agencies. She went from interview to interview and when they asked her what she could do and she responded "I’m an actress," they would laugh and tell her that they weren’t running a casting agency. Finally she landed work hosing out the pens on a massive chicken farm. For two days she spent 10 hours a day cleaning the excrement from thousands of chickens for $2.15 an hour. At night she burnt up the phone lines, calling everyone she knew in Hollywood: Burt Reynolds, William Holden, Glenn Ford, Danny Kaye, but she could never get through to them. Finally, as a last resort she called Tippi Hedren whom she had met just once when Hedren was a guest on Chinh’s talk show.

"Right away she remembered me and I was crying and crying. She said ‘I will help you’ and she sent me a ticket and signed all kinds of paperwork to sponsor me to come to the US. She opened her arms and her heart to me," Chinh remembers.

Once she arrived in Los Angeles, Chinh faced other problems. She didn’t have a Screen Actors Guild card, nor did she have an agent. So it was back to minimum wage. For six months she would take three buses every day to get to her job with a Catholic Charity working with refugees, for $500/month. In the meantime, Tippi Hedren, her then son-in-law Don Johnson, William Holden and director Robert Wise began writing letters to the Screen Actors Guild and the William Morris Agency on behalf of Chinh. Finally, as the year drew to a close, Chinh received her SAG card and the William Morris Agency agreed to represent her. Her first job was on Episode 607 of "M*A*S*H*", an episode written by Alan Alda and loosely based on her own life story.

Since then she has received an Emmy in 1996 for her television documentary "Kieu Chinh: A Journey Home", a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2003 Vietnamese Film Festival and a Special Acting Award at the Women’s Film Festival in Turin, Italy.

Now living in Southern California, Kieu Chinh actively supports cultural and social causes. In 1992, together with journalist Terry Anderson, Kieu Chinh co-founded the Vietnam Children’s Fund, and helped raise millions of dollars to build 61 schools for Vietnamese children.

Long Nguyen as Long Nguyen(top)

A veteran of over a dozen feature and short film, Vietnamese-American painter, Long Nguyen, was one of the original boat people to escape from Vietnam when Long was 16. His immediate family was trying to leave Saigon as the Northern Vietnamese Army approached. "My family had a car and so on the 29th we went to the American Embassy," he says. "Those pictures you see on TV of crowds of people outside the gates pushing to get in? That was my family. But we couldn’t get in, and when we went back to our car it had been stripped." They still had two motorcycles, however, and so a part of his family – Nguyen, his older brother, three uncles and an aunt - went to the docks to see if there was a way out. Two cargo boats had been left behind at the docks, and so one of the uncles took the motorcycle back to get the rest of the family and got trapped in Saigon. Long and his family members left at the dock decided they had to leave and so two hours after the Northern Vietnamese entered the Presidential Palace they were on the cargo boat with 4,000 other refugees, floating down the river.

Unfortunately, the boat had been left behind for a reason: it had a bad engine. Every few hours it would conk out and people would desperately try to get it started again. It finally ran aground and a group of fleeing South Vietnamese soldiers forced a passing tow-boat to help free them and tow them out to sea. But the engine died again, and the boat drifted for three days and two nights. Finally, a Danish ship picked them up and the 4,000 refugees became the first group to be sent to Hong Kong.

After three and a half months, Long and his family were sent to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Long didn’t speak English. "My last year of high school was the hardest year of my life," he says. "I had to learn everything from scratch. I had to learn English, I had to get used to the customs and the people. Put it this way: I didn’t go to prom."

Long attended college in Memphis and received his engineering degree but decided to pursue art six months later. Long moved to California joining his father and brothers. He also subsequently earned his MFA in San Jose. The entire Nguyen family made their jouney in four different groups. The last group lead by the Nguyen matriarch arrived in San Jose in 1985. Along the many attempts in escaping Vietnam, Long’s father was caught and sentenced to six months in prison.

Nguyen first met director Ham Tran after a screening of Tran’s short film, "The Anniversary" and he asked to audition for whatever they were working on next. Instead, Tran gave him the part of the Vietcong commander.

"I went to a couple of auditions anyways because I liked the Long Nguyen character very much, and so over the course of the next few days they promoted me from the commander to playing the best friend. Then, two weeks before the shoot they promoted me to play the boat captain. I said ‘Wonderful!’ Then they are shooting on Friday in Thailand and the lead character who’s playing Long is too muscular and they called me on Saturday night and said, ‘We need you to come over to Thailand tomorrow to be Long, because you’re the only person skinny enough to play the part of a prisoner.’ I left Monday and we started shooting on Tuesday."

Nguyen has won two "best actor" awards. One for "Journey from the Fall" in the 2006 Newport Beach Film Festival and one for short "Apsara" in the 2003 California Independent Film Festival.

An accomplished painter and sculptor, Long Nguyen has had several solo and joint exhibitions, including a Mid-Career Retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art entitled "Tales of Yellow Skin."

Diem Lien as Mai Nguyen(top)

Growing up during the Vietnam War, Diem Lien saw her father imprisoned in a re-education camp after the war was over. He survived and in the early 90’s her family emigrated to America. Diem was already a popular singer in Vietnam when she emigrated, but after arriving in the US she was embraced by the Vietnamese American audience and these days she tours all over the world, especially North America, performing at sold-out venues.

"I never thought I'd be acting," Diem Lien explains. "When producer Lam Nguyen asked me to audition, my first thought was...he's crazy. But I came to trust Ham Tran," Diem Lien says. "I tried to do what Ham wanted me to. A lot of what I achieved in acting is thanks to Ham's guidance."

Diem Lien resides in Southern California with her husband and four-year-old son. Diem Lien has resumed her successful singing career and can be seen at major Vietnamese concerts worldwide.

Nguyen Thai Nguyen as Lai Nguyen(top)

Born and raised in the rural province of Ca Mau, Vietnam, young Nguyen Thai Nguyen's family story is even more dramatic than any screenwriter can imagine. Nguyen's father and grandfather are both former officers in the South Vietnamese naval forces.

After the fall of Saigon, Nguyen's grandfather languished in re-education camps for twelve years before he was released in 1987. He immediately fled by boat, landing in a refugee camp and settling in California. Meanwhile, in 1980, Nguyen's father was arrested by the authorities for "counter-revolutionary activities" and imprisoned for 11 years. In 1991 he was released, and a year later Nguyen Thai Nguyen was born.

His grandfather sponsored his family to come to the United States, and Nguyen had only been in the country for six months when Ham Tran decided to cast him. Lam Nguyen, the producer, and Tran were holding auditions at a Northern California Vietnamese Veteran Association who had donated the space to the production. Nguyen’s grandfather came in to audition and he brought his grandson with him.

"We needed someone for the role who was new to America. I didn’t want anyone who was born here," Tran says. "I was specifically looking for someone who had just arrived here. That look you have in your eyes when you’ve just arrived is very different and very specific. You’re just taking in this big new world."

However, young Nguyen wasn’t interested in being involved with the film. They tried to change his mind but he wouldn’t budge. Then Tran saw him drawing and asked if they could use his sketches for the opening of the film when the legend of Le Loi is told. Nguyen knew about the legend, which impressed Tran since a lot of Vietnamese kids his age would have no clue about it, and the two got to talking. Little by little, Nguyen came around and finally agreed to participate in the film.

Tran also asked to interview Nguyen’s father about his experiences in the re-education camps, but he declined. His grandfather and mother, however, were his on set guardians and they both appear in the movie. During the Fall of Saigon, the grandfather appears holding a suitcase, and the orange vendor seen as the family flees Saigon at night is Nguyen’s mother.

Being a part of the film has helped Nguyen Thai Nguyen learn more about his family. Nguyen’s grandfather says, "During the filming, Thai Nguyen would be asking me about the story line, and I’d be explaining to him. He has come to realize the kind of suffering that his father went through, and the sacrifices that his parents are making so he can get a better future. It has been a journey for Thai Nguyen too."

Jayvee Mai The Hiep as Thanh(top)

Jayvee Mai The Hiep is a performance artist who has written and directed many works on stage. He is also a veteran performer in Club O'Noodles, the first Vietnamese Theater Troup. It was in this ensemble nearly eight years ago that Jayvee met director Ham Tran.

Since then they have worked together on several projects including Tran's The Rosie Nguyen Show and Who Wants To Be The President (of the Vietnamese Community)?, and the Academy Award Semi-Finalist Live Action Short, The Anniversary.

Being a part of Journey From The Fall gave Jayvee the courage to quit his full time job of eight years and devote himself entirely to performing arts and related works. As Jayvee says, "Journey From The Fall starts a new journey in my life."

Khanh Doan as Captain Nam(top)

Originally cast as Long Nguyen only to lose the part on the first day of shooting because he looked too healthy to be playing a prisoner in a re-education camp, Khan Doan is actually a survivor of a re-education camp himself. He tried to escape Vietnam several times, and was caught on every occasion and sent to a special prison for captured boat people, who were considered "traitors" for trying to leave Vietnam. He eventually was imprisoned for a year in one of the re-education camps before he was able to escape by boat. Landing in the Philippines he lived in a refugee camp there for nine years. He was only in the United States for 10 months before being cast in JOURNEY.

While visiting Southern California’s Little Saigon area a friend encouraged him to audition for a part in JOURNEY. "This film is very real to me," Khanh Doan says. "The story touches me deeply, it reflects a lot of what our people went through. The film helps us understand our own history, and will help the world understand the story of the Vietnamese refugees. It was not hard for me to play the part of someone just arriving from Vietnam," he says. "I only needed to be myself."

Cat Ly as Phuong(top)

Cat Ly was already a celebrity when she auditioned for Journey From The Fall to play Phuong. For the past six years, Cat Ly has been a singer-entertainer in high demand in the Vietnamese music scene and a star of several sold-out musical shows.

Cat Ly values the opportunity to act in Journey From The Fall as it explores a history of herself, of her community never before seen on the screen. "I never knew a lot of things I know now, because of the movie," Cat Ly says. "As to the world at large, this film deserves an important place because the history of the fall of Saigon and the hardship of refugees is something that reflects our entire humanity."

Returning to her Southern California home, Cat Ly has resumed her singing career with as much or even more success as before.  |