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Asian American Film Home > Features > Ethnically--Chinese-Vietnamese-American

In-depth articles about Asian American film & filmmakers


04.19 - Posted by The San Diego Asian Film Foundation


By Diana Lin and Sophia Nguyen, Writers for the San Diego Asian Film Foundation

Tran and the Buddhist monk in THE ANNIVERSARY

Many 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 ANNIVERSARY had 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.”

“[THE ANNIVERSARY 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 a conditioning.”

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.

“That's 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 on.”

“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 culture Vietnamese.”

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. 

“When 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 background.

“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 climax.”

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 control.”

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. 

“I 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.”

For More Feature Stories by SDAFF, please look through the Features Section on AsianAmericanFilm.com and please visit the San Diego Asian Film Foundation


I accidentally found your page on my search for Asian American resources and I thought that your project (The anniversary) is that of special interest. I'm also a Vietnamese born who grew up in the States. While I understand your desire to create works that reflect the Vietnamese culture from an authentic point of view rather than that which is interpreted and reinterpreted by the Occident, I wonder if the focus of such works must be the Vietnam War. Too often we are being viewed through the victimized lens of war, do you think that by reconnecting and reinterpretation of the war would divert the stereotypes that Vietnamese Americans face? Perhaps you should consider the alternative of concentrating your future project on the Vietnamese in the present instead of the wounds of the past. I feel our community is lacking the effords of breaking the discourse of the Vietnamese Communist.
I have no seen your film yet but am looking forward to it. It's always refreshing to discover a Vietnamese talent.

kelly le

Posted by: Kelly Le on September 12, 2005 05:10 PM

Dear Ham: I would love to see the movie. Where can I purchase or see it. Good work , Ham.
Chi Thuy

Posted by: Thuy Nishio on July 20, 2005 12:19 AM

We really want to see the movie: Journey from the Fall" How are we about to do it? Please advise. I have lots of friends are asking about it in Oklahoma.

Posted by: LOAN LE on July 14, 2005 09:58 AM

Hi Ham! Congratulations on your film. I read a lot about you and your work. I want to know where can I go to purchase or rent your movies ?


Posted by: Chau Tran on April 22, 2005 07:08 PM

Hello Tran, I am a Vietnamese teenager and I am very interested in my country history and legends. I just want to say that I am looking forward to see this movie.

Posted by: Tran Quang Liem on April 6, 2005 09:14 PM

Hi Tran,

I'm an American who was stationed in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam 1966-1967. You can find my postings about my experiences there on the "Tan Son Nhut Association" webpage. Just click "Viewbook" and in the upper right hand corner you will find a box with the years of the postings... I posted a year or two ago so, I can't remember the exact date, but if you keep scrolling down you will find my name.

Tonight I was just thinking about my time there and the people I knew and found your website while surfing on the internet, there was one sweet little girl in Saigon who boldly approached me to sell some paintings on silk she was carrying and she shouted out "Hey... you buy" and she was barefooted and I thought I would buy a painting to make her feel good... but I pretended to be a tough customer... she went through the paintings and I appeared not interested and when I saw the tiger... I lit up and said "Number one!" She was so serious about selling those paintings that she said "her father had painted" and I could see the expression on her face change to one of accomplishment when I said number one and then said "how much?" and she said 20p and I teased her a little and said oh no, no... then I surprised her and said "25p ok!" She must have been surprised to hear someone go up in price instead of down and she insisted on 20p, but I insisted on 25p "no sweat" and handed her the money. Actually, I ended up buying about ten paintings from her and she found a chair for me to sit down on the sidewalk while she took part of the proceeds and bought a dish of freshly cut up pineapple and presented that to her "good customer." She was truly a good businessman (gal)at such an early age. Everytime I went to Saigon I would stop and see her... she never tried to sell me a painting again... I'm 60 years old now... so she must be in her 40s... and I often wonder what became of her and what she is doing today. What did she go through when Saigon was taken over by the communists? What kind of life is she living? Did she get married and have a family? I really hope she found some happiness. I'll bet she still remembers me on occasion. I can still see her sweet little kid face... so serious in her endeavor to sell those paintings. I remember her name was Thi.

I took my discharge in Vietnam and flew to Tokyo to attend Sophia University and have been in Japan ever since.

When Saigon was about to fall I helped a young gal and her younger sisters and brothers who had to leave their parents behind (they were school teachers) and my Dad let them stay in a trailer home at Lake Meade in Nevada until the older gal could get a job (she was 25 years old) and start a life in the U.S.

So, I often wonder how the boat people who got out are fairing in the U.S. I bet that most of them are doing pretty well, taking advantage of the freedom and opportunities they have. So, I'm not surprised to see that you are passionate about making films from the Vietnamese point of view. Wonderful! Keep at it. Those are stories that should be told. I would love to see your film.

All the best to you Tran.

Bob Licciardi

Posted by: Bob Licciardi on June 1, 2004 10:27 AM

Hi Ham, Congratulations on your film and the recognition it has received. It is always a pleasure to see artists and filmmakers bring poignant stories of Vietnam to audiences. I am very intereted in seeing any new projects you have, and if you require any kind of financial funding or marketing or sales of your films, I would love to assist in those aspects. I am particularily interested in the boat people story and similar themes. Thanks.

Posted by: david on April 25, 2004 04:58 PM

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