Film Review: Doris Yeung's 'Motherland'

August 19, 2011

Actress Francoise Yip as Raffi Tang in Motherland

Motherland is both an exploration of the dark underbelly of the immigrant experience in the United States and a meditation on personal tragedy.

The film stars Francoise Yip as Raffi Tang, an estranged daughter who is forced to return home to the United States from Mexico after her mother is brutally murdered in an apparent burglary. The scenario closely echoes the life of director Doris Yeung, whose mother was also killed in a violent crime.

Yeung paints a bleak portrait of a family that disintegrated in their pursuit of the American dream. Raffi’s dad Stanley has an uneasy reunion with his stepdaughter. For years, he’s been battling his ex-wife’s lawsuit alleging that he illegally gained assets from Raffi’s mother. From the beginning of the film, it’s clear that he has the most to gain from his ex-wife’s death.

As the film progresses, we see Raffi go from a detached outsider who can’t wait to bury the past and get on with her life, to a dutiful daughter who seeks vengeance for her beloved mother. Thanks to Yip’s restrained portrayal, that transition seems natural enough. Equally satisfying to watch is veteran Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang’s take on Raffi’s dad, the scheming, deeply flawed father figure who also wants to put the past (and his old family) behind him.

Without those two actors playing off one another, the movie would have been a loss. Despite Yeung’s best efforts to keep this movie interesting, it falters due to the wooden performances by the rest of the cast, which stopped the movie to a screeching halt in several places. The film’s glaring plot holes also served as major distractions.

Thus the movie is only mildly interesting as a noir/detective story, but it’s a better commentary on the pursuit of the American dream. The palatial homes of Raffi’s stepfather and murdered mother are ostentatious and grand statements on their success as immigrants, but are also testaments to violence and ugly family dynamics. Pursuing the American dream and succeeding is well and good, but at what cost?

Hyphen had a chance to speak with Yueng on the making of Motherland. Read the interview here.

Motherland opens on Friday, August 26 at the 4-Star Theatre in the Richmond District in San Francisco.