By Diana Lin and Sophia Nguyen, Writers for the San Diego Asian Film Foundation
Tran and the Buddhist monk in THE ANNIVERSARY
within the Asian film festival community were shocked when Ham Tran’s
THE ANNIVERSARY did
not make the final Oscar nomination list. Shot on 35 mm and on location in
Vietnam, Tran’s UCLA thesis project is an anachronistic journey through
post-war Vietnam, interspersed with a Buddhist monk’s memories of war and
betrayal on the anniversary his brother’s death. When the Oscar nomination
list was released, some pointed to racism, corruption, or just plain
ignorance as the deciding factor, but Tran has a different take.
“There were six war shorts on the Oscar nomination
list. There was, in fact, another Vietnamese movie called THE SHADOW, which
was directed in French. It was horrible. I think it affected THE ANNIVERSARY
negatively in that they decided to take both out.”
“[THE SHADOW] was in the top ten, but I found it
culturally offensive to have a Vietnam story credited to a French writer.
And in a matter of respect for material directed in Vietnamese, the actors
weren’t even speaking proper Vietnamese.”
The winning live action short
film this year was TWO SOLDIERS, also about war and two brothers. Even
though Tran’s 28 minute film didn’t end up getting nominated, THE
already caught the attention and admiration of film festival circles, wining
the grand prize from the USA Film Festival 2003, American Accolades, and the
Cinema Jove Film Festival.
“I think people are feeling
a connection towards it, because of its truthfulness and honesty.”
is] a personal journey, awareness of
the Vietnamese side of the story by Vietnamese Americans. It doesn’t
necessarily have to be reflected in film. It should be a consciousness, not
Picture of the family in THE ANNIVERSARY
By staying away from
politics, Tran took a more intimate approach and concentrated more on the
family in the story.
“I feel strongly about having a great grasp of history,
and I want people to know that this is what [Vietnamese people] had to
overcome. It was time for a reckoning, because I was sick of seeing white
people in [films about] Vietnam. I wanted to see Viets cast as leads.”
“It was actually my father who told me, when I was
making THE ANNIVERSARY that if I were to make a film about Vietnam, then I
need to go there and make it. Otherwise, it's like cooking Vietnamese food
without the fish sauce, no flavor.”
The journey to making THE ANNIVERSARY began in 1999,
when Tran returned to his birthplace for the first time. During then, he was
working as a cinematographer for a documentary about the fragmentation of
Vietnamese families as a result of the war. It was a conscious decision on
his part to have his next project set in Vietnam, which began as Ham’s
thesis work for his graduate studies.
Making the best of the $25,000 James Bridges Award Tran
received from UCLA, the budget would have been enough to shoot the entire
film if it hadn’t been for the censors in Vietnam.
The mother and her older son.
“The weekend before we were supposed to film, the
Vietnamese studio heads called my producer in and told him that the
government told us to go home. No permits allowed for this film. They didn't
want anyone to make a film about the Vietnam War. They didn't want to pick
at old scars, and was afraid this film would stir up painful memories.”
Eventually, the crew had to write an alternate draft
without the war, and just shot everything but the war in Vietnam. They
ended up completing the movie back in the United States, shooting the war
scenes in Malibu, Los Angeles. In the end, Tran considers the hardships well
worth the end results.
why I made THE ANNIVERSARY, because I was watching a documentary about the
Vietnam War as a film genre two years ago. After they've gone through
obvious Stone films, and Coppola and Schumacher, the closing statement made
by the narrator was something like, "There's only one voice that is missing
in this genre, and that is...the African-American experience." I started
flipping off at the TV and saying ‘What about the people of the country that
the war actually took place? What about the Vietnamese voice?’”
Tran had not always been so acutely aware of his
Vietnamese heritage and considers his coming-on-age relatively typical of
Asian America. For most of his life, Tran participated in the natural
assimilation into mainstream America with little cognition of the richness
of his background.
“Prior to opening up to my culture, I thought the only
Western writing was the only real writing. That is what we’ve been built
“If learning to disassociate from my Asian culture is
the experience of a typical Asian American kid, then that's how I grew up.”
“I’m ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese, so by blood Chinese, by
Tran was born in 1974, the youngest of first generation
ethnic Chinese Vietnamese parents; his family immigrated to United States
through the Orderly Departure Program in 1982.
I was in Vietnam, I thought I was Vietnamese. After we came over to America,
my parents kept telling me, ‘You are not Vietnamese. You are Chinese.’”
It was not until near the end of his undergraduate
residency that Tran started getting in touch with his Vietnamese cultural
“I was an English major at UCLA, taking writing classes
on Thoreau. Then I took a playwriting class whose instructor told us to
write about our own experiences.”
That was when he realized that “middle
school and high school was nothing more than institutionalized amnesia.”
“I was expected to shed all colors on my skin just to
fit in. The way I see it, making an Asian-themed work is more challenging
than a non-Asian project.”
To Tran, art is the process of "remembering" a way to
recollect and rejoin his detachments, to assemble new and lost history and
culture that make up himself.
Through explorations in
playwriting, prose, poetry, music, painting, and film, Tran began to examine
his self-identity more closely and attributes much of his awakening to Club
O’Noodle, a Vietnamese comedy troupe that tours universities across the
nation. He took a year off school after receiving his BA in English to
travel with the troupe, promoting Vietnamese American artistic expression.
As of now, Tran is working on
his first full-length feature, originally
Fire in the Lake, but now
titled Journey from the Fall
because of copyright issues with the first title.
“[JOURNEY FROM THE FALL] is like a cross between THE
PIANIST, THE KILLING FIELDS, and A.I. Most people know about the Vietnam
War, but few know about the "internment" of hundreds of thousand South
Vietnamese army veterans had to go through. Nor do many people know about
the mass exodus that numbered nearly a million "boat people" who fled
communist rule in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. These were people who
searched for freedom in the open sea, risking drought, starvation, death and
pirate attacks. It is a survival story that tells of the Vietnamese American
experience that has never before been done in an American film, something
that the world has never experienced but must acknowledge.”
journey from the fall
will feature traditional music, and this is where Chris Wong, composer for
THE ANNIVERSARY comes in.
“I feel confident that Ham will make more high quality
projects and that, to me, is more important.”
“I think he is definitely one
of the most talented [directors]. In terms of sheer artistry, there is not
much more to hope for. He has a very focused idea of what his career wants
to be about and has a lot of passion for telling Vietnamese American and
Asian American stories.”
“The Anniversary was a very challenging film to write
music, an aesthetic challenge in how the music will reflect Asian culture.
Ham didn’t want Asian instruments and wanted a western orchestra. The
technical challenges were that Ham had chosen traditional Vietnamese music
for the emotional
Wong composed a part that would integrate itself around
the traditional Vietnamese song from the 40s. For accuracy, Wong had to
make the sound quality lower. Timing issues arose, and the song ended up
getting cut up.
“It was frustrating, and the first time I got
something that I thought sounded perfect, I called Ham and told him, ‘I
think I got it nailed.’ I played it for him, and Ham said, no, that’s not
going to work because the lyrics didn’t match. I was like, ‘How would I
know? I don’t speak Vietnamese!’”
Nevertheless, Wong is working with Tran again for JOURNEY FROM THE FALL. “My experience with Ham Tran has been really good. I’ve worked
with Ham on other projects, but [THE ANNIVERSARY] is the first time with him as a director.
He’s worked as editor on movies that I’ve scored. He’s good to work with
because he is very focused on what he wants and at the same time flexible in
letting you do what you want, your own thing.”
The quality and success of THE ANNIVERSARY has allowed
Tran greater authority over his own work.
“After THE ANNIVERSARY we’ve been given more leeway.
We’ve been very fortunate in meeting with execs who have allowed us creative
Tran wants this first feature film to be a statement;
he’s pitching JOURNEY FROM THE FALL to investors as commemoration of the 30th
anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
don't do the soapbox speeches, and I don't like flag waving, but I do
believe that none but our own voices can speak for our experience.”
“I just want to be able to make films that I feel
passionate about, films that push the limits of whatever genre it's in, and
hopefully films that give voice to my ethnic community.”