Amy Tan on American Masters ‘Unintended Memoir’ ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Director James Redford’s final film, “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir,”  is a beautiful, lyrical portrait of a friend, author Amy Tan. Yet while it explores her relationship with her mother, this American Masters 101-minute episode fails to situate Tan properly in Asian American literature as well as answering any criticism.

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 Sundance panel discussion, he had left sufficient instructions and the documentary was near complete.

The film looks at Tan as she was finishing up what began as a book on writing but became a memoir, Tan’s 2017 “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir.” Tan was initially reluctant to do the documentary but recounted during the discussion that followed the Sundance screening how Redford “courted” her and how safe she felt.

Setting the scene, the documentary, “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” begins looking at 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.” She and her mother also survived the twin tragedy when Tan’s older brother Peter and her father both died of brain cancer in the span of a year. If her mother had been emotional stability had been precarious before, this tipped it over the edge. 

This is not about changing the past, she said, “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 first book, the 1989 “The Joy Luck Club.”  The documentary also looks at how the words leaped from the page to film and Redford includes interviews with the film’s actors:  Lisa Lu, Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita and Kieu Chinh.

Redford also spoke with Tan’s family and friends, including her husband. For literary insights, new interviews with Tan and fellow writers Kevin Kwan, Isabel Allende, Dave Barry and Ronald Bass are included. 

While the film deals sensitively with Tan’s mother and her past, things that are not revelations, it fails to deal with criticism of “The Joy Luck Club” as both a novel and a film in terms of representation of Asian men. In Los Angeles, the most strident voice was Frank Chin. The Berkeley-born Chin is still alive although perhaps now embraces his role as the curmudgeon all too enthusiastically. 

In his essay,  “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” from “The Big AIIIEEEEE!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature,” Chin was highly critical of Amy Tan as well as Maxine Hong Kingston. Chin won three American Book Awards, including one for “The Year of the Dragon” (and “The Chickencoop Chinaman”). “The Year of the Dragon” became a teleplay and was on PBS “Great Performances” in 1975 with George Takei starring. Chin’s play also looks at the surprise of a second secret family in China.

The 80-year-old Professor Emerita Kingston preceded Tan and her 1976 “The Woman Warrior” received the National Book Critics Award for Nonfiction and her 1980 “China Men” received the National Book Award. Time Magazine named “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” as one of the top nonfiction books of the 1970s.  Kingston participated in an anti-war protest in 2003 and was arrested, but in 2014, she was given a National Medal of the Arts by then-president Barack Obama. 

Kingston was herself the subject of a documentary (by Gayle K. Yamada), the 1990 “Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Story” which featured Tan and David Henry Hwang. She was also featured in Bill Moyer’s documentary, “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.” 

In the absence of Kingston, the documentary suggests that Asian American literature sprang up suddenly in 1989. The connection between Tan and the Singapore-born Kevin Kwan and his 2013 book and the 2018 film, “Crazy Rich Asian” is more about movies than literature. Asian American literature is more than a century old.  

Both Tan and Kingston were criticized for their negative portrayal of Chinese men and if one wanted to avoid Chin who tends to rant, one could have inquired with Shawn Wong, also one of the editors of “The Big Aiiieeeee!” and the preceding 1974 “Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers.” Wong is currently a professor at the University of Washington and was featured in Moyer’s documentary as well as the 2005 documentary “What’s Wrong With Frank Chin?”

“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” is a lovely, safe portrait of Tan, but its analysis of her impact on Asian American literature and American literature lacks depth. 

“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” made its world premiere at Sundance and premieres on TV on 3 May 2021 on PBS for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month as part of its “American Masters” series at 9 p.m. (Check local listings). The film made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in February. 

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