Memoirs of a Superfan vol. 9.4: Journey from the Journey
2006, the year I started blogging for CAAM, was also the year that Ham Tran headlined Closing Night of SFIAAFF with his debut feature, JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, fresh from rave reviews at Sundance. I got my festival-writing start the year before, for the now defunct Vietnamese American magazine NHA (Home), under Editor Kathy Nguyen and Publisher Sonny Nguyen, so 2014 actually marks my 10thyear of writing (there’s that magical number 10 again). I called JOURNEY FROM THE FALL a “spiritual experience.” Journalist Nguyen Qui Duc said at the film’s screening, “all wars end in families. This movie is about the woman who does your nails, the college student sitting next to you, the silicon valley worker…” He then asked everyone who was a boat person to stand up – over 50 people stood. “Who survived the reeducation camps?” About five men stood, while the audience applauded. I felt so proud to be close to all of these people who’d undergone such suffering, and yet were there that night to celebrate the achievements of these young filmmakers and actors. I wrote “there was so much to take in; I wondered what memories were returning to all those people who had stood before the show.” The film found redemption in reunion. Refugees of revolution found the real revolution was in relationship, in family. All wars end in families, indeed.
CAAMFest 2014’s Opening Night film, the crowd-pleasing HOW TO FIGHT IN SIX INCH HEELS, Tran’s second feature, played as another tile in the mosaic of Vietnamese American experience. In short, I loved it and highly recommend you see it when it’s released in May, 2014. I found it extremely well-conceived, written, and executed, with a fantastic ensemble cast brilliantly directed by Tran and filmed by Guillermo Rosas, who also was the cinematographer for JOURNEY and Tran’s incredible short film THE ANNIVERSARY). The actors should get the Oscar for Most Emotionally Expressive Cast Ever! HOW TO FIGHT was on one level a goofy, laugh out loud, over the top sendup of the DEVIL WEARS PRADA genre, and on an another level a mature coming of age story, one with interesting and captivating depth that speaks to the romantic aspirations of the psyche and the mystical power of love. A refugee child returns to Vietnam and finds the heart. The journey from the journey from the fall is the journey to the heart. And without a wound, there’s no reason for a journey. Wounds compel travel. This movie brings the diasporic wound full-circle; the homeland has powers to heal, a message waiting for children scattered across continents. And the children have messages for the homeland as well. That is true both for the fictional characters, and the makers of the film, Vietnamese Americans working with Vietnamese to create a new global cinema. In their relationships as well as the relationships of the characters they portray, there is hope. There is more to come on this journey.
(BEGIN SPOILER!!! Skip below if you haven’t seen the movie.)
In the film, protagonist Anne (Kathy Uyen, who also conceived the project, co-wrote, and co-produced) is a woman on a mission. We don’t know the precise backstory of her journey, but we can see she’s a driven, Type A fashion designer, extraordinarily talented and able to master the chaos of her workplace and come out on top. She’s a control freak, to be sure, making her a likely and unfortunate recipient of the “Triple Package”, described as a sense of superiority/pride, insecurity, and impulse control. (Ugh, I so hate to reference Amy Chua here, but Anne’s chip-on-the-shoulder drive and striving does come from someplace. See my rebuttal of Chua at Underscoring Amy Chua). She’s a 20-something Vietnamese American woman, either the child of refugees or a refugee herself. She’s called “duck face” by her fiancé, so one can imagine her insecurity about her looks. Growing up as a member of a minority, her looks were probably not validated by society and media. She is an outsider. She chooses to excel in fashion, which is ultimately about demanding attention for appearance, standing out, and putting on a kind of armor to take on the world. Clothes can also be something to hide behind, or a way of reinventing the self through presentation: they carry one’s dreams and fantasies to the eyes of the world. Fashion can be a presentation of the persona, the desired public face, a means to impress others with one’s beauty, taste, skill or means, an expression of one’s inner beauty, or even a distraction from one’s inner pain.
Control-freak Anne wants to “have it all”. She has a 2x2x2 plan: 2 years to land the perfect career, 2 years to plan the perfect marriage, and 2 years to have the perfect child. (I guess she should listen to Cynthia Lin’s “Perfect” for good measure. “Where is my perfect love,” indeed. FYI, Cynthia will be headlining DIRECTIONS IN SOUND: HERE COMES TREBLE on March 22nd.)
But “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Her fiancé Kiet (Petey Magik Nguyen) takes a stint in Vietnam, disappointing and angering her. It’s a threat to her success-at-all-costs, fight-or-flight survival brain. She’s also nicknamed “Grenade” for a reason. And then, she is devastated when, over a videochat session with him, she spots another woman’s red pumps. She starts seeing red pumps everywhere: her world has become filled with the presence of her “adversary”, in the way that only a lover or enemy can pervade one’s waking dream. Her tight boundary has been broken; Grenade’s psyche explodes. She springs into fight mode: she will seek and destroy her rival. Romantic love is possessive, exclusive – and often jealous. But why not seek to make her relationship with Kiet right instead? Partly because her feelings for him are perhaps more about control than love. But more importantly, on the level of the psyche, she has to do battle with herself. She travels to Vietnam on a detective mission, ostensibly to suss out her suspects. But in fact, I think she has entered a “bardo”, a transitional state between lives, where she has to battle her doppelgangers, her alter-egos, each representing different possibilities for her personality and womanhood. They are, in effect, the ruptured contents of her exploded ego, fun-house mirrors of her strivings. (Cynthia Lin’s Doppelganger does this feeling-state justice.) There’s Bao Trang (Phuong Mai) the cold, bitchy top model. There’s Mimi (YaYa Truong Ni), the effusive, bubbly buddy. And there’s Ha My (Truc Diem), the sweet, sensitive best friend-type who saves Anne’s butt on the runway. Four starkly contrasting, strong women characters interact through ego and power, competition and camaraderie. And each of them has a public face and a hidden secret; they alternate between pride and shame. Anne is torn between trust and mistrust of the women and also of Kiet (“I want to trust him!” she declares. But she doesn’t know how, a message from the deepest reaches of her fear-sensitive brain. Perhaps she’s never been able to trust the world, which has a history of devaluing her.) There is a dramatic confrontation, complete loss of 2x2x2 plan, and finally reconstruction and redemption around a surer version of love, one that at least is humble enough to recognize the equality of others’ perspectives. Instead of insecurity driving a need to master the world, beating it into submission, she realizes true relatedness is the only way to deal with the inherent fears, doubt and loathing of the self-centered life. She takes her place as an explorer and participant in life. While she took on the pseudonym “Thai An” (Great Peace) in Vietnam, she had to go through Great War to achieve it. As the Buddha said, “greater than she who conquers a thousand armies is she who conquers herself.” Anne emerges a more whole person; even her new fashions reflect the colors and perspectives she’s gained from her journey.
The film made me think of the many kinds of women, the many kinds of people, and their underlying nature, grounded in the strengths, vulnerabilities and possibilities of being human. It was a good Opening Night note to celebrate the diversity and unity of community brought together by CAAM.
Masashi Niwano, CAAM’s Festival and Exhibitions Director, said the mood of the festival is “revolutionary”. Ham Tran’s film set the right tone, in reminding us that the real revolution is in relationship. The real revolution is in love, which is the essence of being human. The only revolution that’s worthwhile, to me, is one that leads us to the fullest expression of love, from individual, family, community, nation and world. That’s not just sentiment – it’s a complicated struggle of definition, dialectic and action. It’s wonderful, as Supervisor David Chiu reminded us, that as a community, Asian Americans have made strides since CAAM’s founding 32 years ago, the year of Vincent Chin’s murder. Asian American supervisors, Asian American mayors – we’ve taken our seats of power where once we were barred. But we all can and do take seats and leadership roles in love’s certain, but usually subtle, subterranean progress.
Congratulations to Tran, producer Timothy Linh Bui, writer Tim Tori, director of photography Bao Nguyen (who also is directing EMPLOYED IDENTITY, a series of shorts about the Vietnamese diaspora and return, the first of which was played preceding the feature to the audience’s great delight), Sigmund Watkins (George), Don Nguyen (Danny), Gigi Velicitat (Tino) and all the other cast and crew! You’ve pulled off a remarkable feat with many interlocking parts, and created resonances that will be rebounding for some time.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens,Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says “I think it will be inspiring to many, many people.” More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.