Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Motherland with Francoise Yip

I was lucky enough to receive a screener DVD of the new 2009 feature film Motherland in the mail this week and here are some thoughts on this bold American film.

I'm guessing that the majority of this site's readers know actress Francoise Yip from her somewhat thankless roles in Black Mask and Rumble in the Bronx but here the actress turns in a really stunning, commandingly cool and coiled performance in this feature from writer/director Doris Yeung.

Francoise plays Raffi Tang, an Asian-American woman living in Mexico who receives word of her mother's murder in San Francisco. The images of Mexico in these early scenes play off of the preconceived images of the American West from a lifetime of American cowboy films and also provide a bit of space to what will soon be a somewhat claustrophobic journey as Raffi returns to the United States.

As Raffi journeys back to America, past an Asian-American U.S. customs agent at the airport (a nice touch that hints at some of the issues of identity in the film), I was struck by the use of a limited series of almost nondescript American locations, the familiar scenes taking on a kind of sterility that matches the distance between Raffi and her family. Obviously, the film was made on a small budget but this works to the director's advantage as, clearly, it made her focus that much more precise.

As Raffi meets with family members she has not seen in years, and a series of lawyers retained by her mother, none of the locales seem as warm and inviting as that early opening shot of the Mexican landscape. The viewer is denied the liberation of an outdoor shot and, when that shot comes later in the film and we see the San Francisco morning skyline, it is all the more special.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The nice thing about the film is that, for the most part, the family history is slowly revealed in small details and we're not quite sure exactly what has happened between Raffi and her father (Kenneth Tsang), or what history exists with family friend, Michael Wong (Byron Mann) -- is he someone Raffi once dated or once rejected? What are his motives with her family now?

We do know that Mr. Tang has remarried a much younger woman; that he has a quite young daughter (Raffi's half-sister); and that some sort of litigation has been underway for quite some time between the estranged ex-Mrs. Tang and Mr. Tang.

What struck me in these early scenes was what a wonderfully nuanced performance Ms. Yip was giving. However, my first thought in the first scene with the actress was that her somewhat glamourous looks were going to be a bit too jarring. But I quickly appreciated how Raffi's beauty was a bit of a burden as well, with the creepy detective making a not-too-subtle pass at her during an interview at the police station.

The viewer gets the backstory of this family with a minimum of exposition: Raffi *is* indeed the beautiful daughter of a successful and apparently wealthy Asian-American family and, yet, she's decided to live in Mexico and has had a lesbian relationship that her family may or may not approve of -- her father still seems to think she is going to be won over by Mr. Wong.

While the film is having its premiere at the 2009 Outfest in Los Angeles, the sexual orientation of Raffi is handled so matter-of-factly and directly that the film never once becomes some sort of polemic.

The only scene that felt a bit too obvious for me was one with Raffi's uncle breaking down over his sister's death and railing against the old woman's belief in the American Dream.

It is significant that this is one of the very few scenes where the characters speak Chinese; is the director trying to hint that the uncle represents the real motherland of the title as he rails against his sister's now-dead dream of success in America? Maybe. The scene, for the most part, worked and the actors brought a great deal of warmth to this moment in the film.

Overall, the film belongs to Ms. Yip who brings a somewhat -- for lack of a better word -- haughty demeanour to her early scenes. She reminded me of someone who, in the middle of an argument, stops to hear what the other person is going to say and then braces herself for the worst. Raffi always seemed on the edge of losing control in the early scenes and Ms. Yip looks as formidable in these moments as she did fighting Jet Li in Black Mask!

I don't say that lightly for Raffi is every bit an emotional warrior entering hostile territory. Given that the character begins the story in another country, it's not simply a daughter who "doesn't get along" with her family. No, this woman and her family have a history and the viewer will probably never learn the entire reality in a mere 92 minutes.

Kenneth Tsang brings his usual class to a thankless role which is not to fault the writer; if the character is a tiny bit aloof and one dimensional that is not to say that there are not older Asian-American patriarchs like this in the suburbs of this country. Mr. Tang doesn't get to earn our sympathies but the story is really not about him anyway.

The story is -- as the filmmakers have explained -- about the American Dream and the cost of pursuing it; not for nothing do the title cards arrive over a magnificent shot of the Golden Gate bridge lost in a fog bank -- our destination over that golden bridge not only a hazy unknown but also an ill-defined goal in the clouds.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I would like to praise Ms. Yeung for using a minimum of locales to great effect. The Director of Photography, Christopher Lockett, also deserves special praise for the crisp imagery and the judicious use of a limited number of setups.

The close-up shots and tight spaces fit the story and the emotions of the lead characters perfectly.

The music by Steven Pranato is quite limited but effective, using simple patterns of notes to great effect.

The film is not so much a mystery -- though it is in some ways one -- but a personal journey; the backstory doesn't matter as much as the sense that Raffi makes of her mother's life, as well as her death.

But, quite simply, the film is also a showcase for lead actress Francoise Yip and it is thrilling to see someone from Hong Kong cinema shine like this; not only is it a great part, it's a great part for a woman in her 30's.

For that reason alone, I highly recommend this film and hope to see similar work from director Yeung and Francoise Yip in the future.

Buy tickets for one of the Outfest screenings here.

Read more about the film at