HomeAAPI ActorsA lyrical, but incomplete portrait of author Amy Tan

A lyrical, but incomplete portrait of author Amy Tan

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

Director James Redford’s final film, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, is a beautiful, lyrical portrait of his friend, author Amy Tan. Yet while it explores Tan’s relationship with her mother, the 101-minute American Masters episode has a glaring omission: It fails to situate Tan properly in Asian American literature, including addressing the longstanding criticism of her portrayal of Asian men.

Photo from Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Tan was initially reluctant to take part in the documentary but, as she recounted during a panel discussion at the Sundance Film Festival, Redford “courted” her and made her feel safe. Sadly, the 58-year-old Redford, son of historian Lola Van Wagenen and actor/director and Sundance film festival founder Robert Redford, died of cancer in October, but according to the panel discussion, had left sufficient instructions and the documentary was near complete. 

The documentary takes place as Tan is finishing her 2017 memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. Setting the scene, it begins with birds near still water and then shifts to Tan looking at photos gathered and sorted in archival boxes. We see a photo of her mother as an attractive young woman, one who had once lived in a mansion in Shanghai.

Tan explains, “When you’re writing, I think you’re naturally going through some kind of subconscious philosophical construct, your own cosmology, how the world is put together and how events happen and what’s related, what’s coincidental.” 

Growing up, Tan didn’t have a tiger mother; she had a “suicidal mother.” Tan’s father helped mitigate the situation, but Tan’s older brother and her father both died of brain cancer in the span of a year. If her mother’s emotional stability had been precarious before, their deaths tipped it over the edge.

But Tan says, “It’s not as though I want to change the past; it’s really trying to understand how these things come together to bring you where you are.”

And to get us there, Redford uses archival footage to examine the phenomena behind Tan’s debut novel, the 1989 The Joy Luck Club. The documentary traces how the words leapt from the page to Wayne Wang’s groundbreaking film, with interviews with the film’s actors, Lisa Lu, Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita and Kieu Chinh, as well as screenwriter Ronald Bass.

Redford also spoke with Tan’s family and friends, including her husband. Fellow writers Kevin Kwan, Isabel Allende and Dave Barry provide literary insights.

But missing from the documentary is a more in-depth discussion of Tan’s place in the pantheon of Asian American literature. For one, it fails to mention or interview Maxine Hong Kingston. Kingston preceded Tan with her 1976 memoir The Woman Warrior, which received the National Book Critics Award for Nonfiction. Kingston’s followup book, the 1980 China Men, received the National Book Award. 

In the absence of Kingston, the documentary suggests that Asian American literature sprang up suddenly in 1989 with The Joy Luck Club. The film connects Tan with the Singapore-born Kevin Kwan and his 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians, which became the blockbuster 2018 film starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding. Kwan praises Tan as a pioneer.

The documentary also leaves out any of the criticism of The Joy Luck Club, which has been called out for its negative portrayal of Chinese men. The documentary could have included interviews with detractors such as Frank Chin, a Chinese American writer who was infamously vocal in his criticism of The Joy Luck Club. Instead, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is a lovely, safe portrait of Tan, but its analysis of her impact on Asian American literature and popular culture lacks depth. 

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in February. It will air on May 3, 2021 on PBS for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month as part of its American Masters series. (Check local listings).

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