First Morning

While there has been a slow trickle of art films from Vietnam, Vietnamese-American filmmakers have yet to make their impact.  So while American filmmakers continually revisit Vietnam, few look at the experience of the Vietnamese in America.  Their stories, told in movies like The Beautiful Country and Green Dragon, are much more personal and emotional.  Families were uprooted from their homes and moved to a foreign country halfway across the world in order to survive.  The former movie looked at the dangerous journey to get to America, while the latter looked at how these refuges tried to adjust to a new life.  Now comes First Morning, which can be viewed as the logical next step.  The Vietnamese in this film have been in the United States for about a decade, but are still dealing emotionally with the effects of the war and the journey over.

Unfortunately, First Morning is less Green Dragon and more Close Call, an over-wrought movie about a second-generation Korean-American girl.  The context of that movie and First Morning are different, but the effect is the same.  The acting is mixed (usually on the bad side), and the film looks and feels shoddily put together.  The story needs a lot of work, and there is so much fluff and overacting that any delicate emotional moments are steamrolled over.  Writer/director Victor Vu (Spirits) tells most of the story in flashback.  Tuan (Tri Johnny Nguyen, Ella Enchanted, Cradle 2 the Grave) returns home after his mother had a stroke.  Once there, he learns that his sister Linh (Kathleen Luong, Spirits, Green Dragon) no longer lives there.  The bulk of the story is told through Tuan's uncle Nam (Long Nguyen, Green Dragon, Six Days Seven Nights), who was very close to Linh.

The problem in the present is that Tri Nguyen is not much of an actor.  His delivery is very stilted, and he looks quite uncomfortable on screen.  He does have extensive background as a stuntman, and would probably do better in an action film rather than a family drama.  Luong does okay, but has a thankless task.  The character of Linh is written too broadly, and changes abruptly halfway through First Morning for no reasonable reason.  First, she is extremely shy and withdrawn.  She stays at home all the time, and rarely speaks to anybody.  Her father Minh (Dang Hung Son, Spirits) is buffoonishly domineering, and her mother Kim-Anh (Catherine Ai, Spirits, Green Dragon) puts up with him.  They worry for Linh, who does not want to step outside her self-imposed bubble.  When they set her up with Victor (Tom Huang, Room for Seven, Freshmen) she begins to come out of her shell, but a misunderstanding causes her to withdraw.  Here, Linh is a caricature.  She has so few social skills that she seems to live in a hermetically sealed box, unaware of the world around her.  After she breaks-up with Victor and overhears an errant conversation, she goes bonkers in the opposite direction.  Now, she works in a bar, drinks, sleeps around, and dresses provocatively.  Why? The change is abrupt, and makes no sense.  She goes from wallflower to wild child.

Because of her change, tensions increase at home.  Tuan left for college, and seemed averse to coming back (it's never explained).  Linh doesn't like who she is, so her self-destructive behavior worsens.  Unfortunately, Luong is not believable in this mode.  She comes across as very emotionless.  The Linh character has conflicting emotions bottled up inside her.  This makes her come across as emotionless, with something underneath.  Luong doesn't present this deeper aspect.  Instead, she comes across as passive.  Then, in order to explain what is really going on, Vu launches into another series of flashbacks recounting the family's experiences as they made the trip to America.  The structure is unwieldy, and Vu tries to cram in too many unnecessary cliches before wrapping everything up too patly with a big pretty bow. Linh is the center of the story, but Vu fails to make her story compelling.  Because of this, any emotional denouement comes across as flat and unconvincing.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Bad.
1 hour, 30 minutes, Vietnamese and English with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains some language and sensuality, probably an R, possibly a PG-13

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