By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Idyllic as it may have first seemed, though, Apple Valley proved to be another sort of limbo. Despite the fact that his father had been an English teacher in Vietnam, Tran spoke little of the language when he arrived in America. "The first couple years, it was horrendous. Horrible. I cried every day. No one talked to me. Basically no friends. I just hung out with teachers and [school] counselors." Tran ultimately learned English, in part, he says, by watching history documentaries on PBS.
The idea of recording his own history on film began as a way of explaining--perhaps to himself as much as to others--how his family ended up in Apple Valley. "Since I was in high school, people have asked me the question, How did you get here? I'm not a very good writer, but I wanted to do something to tell the story. I thought: I should make a movie about my journey to America." Last year, armed with a $300 Samsung camcorder, Tran went back to Vietnam and Hong Kong. He found that the camp where he had spent three years was gone, replaced by a block of high-rise apartments.
Tran says he might like to make another documentary about those lost years--perhaps even a film tracking the lives of the other refugees who left Vietnam on the same boat as his family. For now, though, his ambitions sound modest. "After graduation, I'm planning to go to California," he says. "Hopefully I can get a decent job and get some money together." He grins. "Maybe pay off my student loans." Ah, the American dream.
From There to Here screens at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, April 9 at the Bell along with Joanna Kohler's hour-long docMoving in a Mirror. It also shows this weekend at the Bloomington Art Center; proceeds from that screening, sponsored by the Catalyst Foundation, will be put toward a scholarship program for Vietnamese American girls. For more information, call 507.664.9558.
"I don't have the starving artist personality," says Twin Cities filmmaker James Vculek. "And I don't have the personality for raising money."
Sounds like a conundrum, although in Vculek's case it's one he has solved with pristine simplicity: by holding down a well-paying day job at West Publishing, where he works flex time in order to get three days off every week to pursue his art. So far, so good: His sci-fi tragicomedy Two Harbors landed a spot in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival--quite an accomplishment for a first feature. Vculek wrote and directed it for less than $10,000.
Admirably abstaining from stimulants during our chat at Dunn Bros, Vculek has a reserved, friendly presence--and a refreshing matter-of-factness about his work. He says he drew initial inspiration for Two Harbors from a newspaper article about a pair of rural folks involved in shady circumstances. After that he cooked up the character of Vic (actor-comedian Alex Cole), a flea-market action-figure dealer who's vigorously impatient with the human species. "I pictured this irascible, ornery guy," says Vculek, "and it all fell into place at that point."
Cole's Vic sails along on an ocean of bile until he comes across Cassie (Catherine Johnson), whose stall at the flea market consists of nothing more than two crudely fashioned dolls. The two are fascinated with one another, but they're just too weird to make a connection. When Cassie stumbles upon Vic's trailer--replete with satellite dish, tinfoil-covered windows, and a computer dedicated to catching radio waves from space aliens--a mutant romance is born.
"The people who like Two Harbors the most are the ones who never settle in," Vculek says. His point is well taken. The film employs a bleak black-and-white ambience to tease out the inscrutable despair beneath little lives spent in a little place, applying moments of humor and sweetness to make it a uniquely genre-ignoring exercise. One funny cameo features Guthrie mainstay Richard Ooms as a bitchy antique dealer, while another has Twin Cities multitasker Ari Hoptman haggling ineffectually over the price of a Mr. Spock doll.
Johnson turns in an assuredly fragile performance as a young woman with a mysterious past, making her way through the woods of social contact with little in the way of a map or compass. "I saw her as somebody who had a low social intelligence," the actor has said. "Whether it was mild autism or something going on in her brain, I didn't want to get too clinical about it. But I liked how mysterious she was."
Our heroine's mistiness is deepened when Vic starts getting transmissions on his hillbilly-SETI station--only when Cassie is present. Vic might see the irony in having his search for transcendence work out only in the presence of a young girl who's transparently desperate for contact of a more mundane sort, but Vculek doesn't write him that way. The irony is deep, and it's touching when Cassie hesitantly signs on for a journey into Vic's E.T. obsession. The director describes his work as an "anti-Spielberg film," because in Vculek's world things aren't likely to lead to a cuddly climax. And he praises Cole's prickly performance while admitting that the actor took Vic in unexpected directions. "I pictured Bill Murray and I got Jack Nicholson," Vculek says with a laugh.