Director: Fiona Roan Feng-I
Cast: Karena Lam, Kaiser Chuang, Caitlin Fang, Audrey Lin, Bowie Tsang, Kimi Hsia, Teng Hui Huang, Winnie Chang, Jia Yin Tsai, Ming-Hsiu Tsai
Runtime: 1 hr 41 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Clover Films
Opening Day: 9 December 2021
Synopsis: Uprooted from Los Angeles when her mother had breast cancer, 13-year-old Fen struggles to adjust to life in Taipei. As Fen navigates her way through school and reconnects with her long-separated father, her turbulent bond with her mother worsens. Fen drifts further away from her mother before her younger sister is misdiagnosed with SARS, pushing Fen and her mother towards a heated, long-gestating confrontation.
There are films that do not rely on fancy gimmicks like stories that carry more style than substance, heavy CGI and big stars who do not do much except to pose in glamourous shots. Then there are films like this earnest production helmed by Fiona Roan Feng-i, which tells a heartfelt and relatable story.
Roan’s debut feature is a semi autobiographical story of a young mother (Karena Lam) who moves back to Taiwan from the United States with her two daughters after she is diagnosed with breast cancer. The protagonist is the elder daughter (Caitlin Fang), who is upset with being uprooted from her American life. Besides trying to adapt to her new school, she also tries to reconnect with her long separated father (Kaiser Chuang). Amidst this, the relationship with her cancer stricken mother worsens.
The film works because it speaks to the audience with its relevant themes of family tensions and the burden of death of our parents. It would have been convenient for the filmmakers to adopt a melodramatic approach with lots of shouting and screaming. But the 101 minute movie moves along at a confident and unhurried pace. It takes its time to let viewers know the individual family members, and through little episodes, you see the dynamics within the family, and may even realise your family’s story is being told on screen.
While watching the film, you may remember the times hurtful things were said to your parents which you wish you can take back. You may also pick up the somewhat hilarious sequences where the father and mother obviously believes in different religions. Then there are moments which remind you how rebellious or idealistic your childhood was.
Another interesting aspect of the film is how it takes place during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. References to pop culture during that time are aplenty (school girls talk about the once popular Taiwanese boyband 5566, and friends communicated via ICQ). It nicely captures the Roan’s memory of Taipei from 18 years ago. Yet, the feeling is not one that evokes nostalgia. It is one that reminds us of how the society has moved on. In one of the many memorable scenes, the mother is waiting with her ill younger daughter at a hospital’s emergency area. When the healthcare team informs her that the child has pneumonia symptoms and has to be quarantined, the impact of the panic is deeply felt.
At the 58th Golden Horse Awards, the film garnered seven nominations and took home the prizes for Best New Director (Roan), Best New Performer (Fang) and Best Cinematography. On top of that, the movie was also recognised with the Audience Choice Award and FIPRESCI Prize.
There are no unrealistically characterised humans in this movie. The characters are people around us, or even personifications of ourselves. The grounded approach is a nice departure from films which are burdened with huge budgets and an obligation to overwhelm our senses. This is a simple and sincere film that deserves your attention.
(A sincere and relatable film that features heartfelt performances and portrays realistic family dynamics)
Review by John Li