SIFF 2021 Review: Amy Tan: An Unintended Memoir

Year: 2021

Runtime: 102 minutes

Director: James Redford

 By Joan Amenn

Amy Tan is a critically acclaimed author of many books, the most famous being The Joy Luck Club.It would have been so easy for director James Redford to create a shallow, glossy overview of her astounding success. Instead, he treats us to an intimate and at times harrowing story of a woman who encompasses generations of her family history and decided to write about it. It is tragic that he did not live to see the premiere of this completely engaging, beautifully filmed portrait of an artist who broke so much new ground.

As an Asian American, Tan bravely wrote of her experiences as the daughter of immigrants and in the process gave all women who shared that experience a voice. In the 1980’s, this took the literary world by storm, but Tan modestly admits in the film she is simply a “baby boomer” who wrote about coming to terms with her relationship with her mother. This is an oversimplification of her powerful storytelling capabilities and the compelling, often tragic tale of her family that she fictionalized in her novels. Redford makes wise use of the remarkable talents of animator Xaviera Lopez in not just illustrating moments of Tan’s life but heightening the considerable emotional impact of key events. This combined with the gentle, atmospheric music of Kathryn Bostic make this documentary exceptional and does justice to Tan’s life as a daughter, author and creative force.

But “Amy Tan: An Unintended Memoir” (2021) is as much the story of Tan’s mother as it is about her. It is astonishing that someone who looks so tiny and frail could endure so much anguish and trauma and yet accomplish so much. Daisy Tan was an independent and fiercely demanding woman who set perhaps impossible standards for her daughter, but she was also a deeply tortured soul. The film juxtaposes pictures of the Tan family gathered around a table with friends to play cards and mah-jongg with Amy talking about the horrors of growing up with a parent who struggled with mental illness. Redford lets her tell about her life simply and honestly and we are won over by how refreshingly candid and grounded she is, even about how she was criticized by some for how she portrayed Asian Americans in her books. Tan clearly did not ban any topic from discussion in front of the camera. The result is a wonderfully complex and satisfying visit with a fascinating woman.

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