Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Doris Yeung's MOTHERLAND opens at the Quad Cinema in New York. Ouch!

Criticizing a movie like MOTHERLAND -- about a adult daughter, estran-ged from her mother, who suddenly must travel to San Francisco to pick up the pieces when she learns that mom has been murdered -- is more difficult than usual. This is because, according to the press materials, the film is a reaction by the writer/director Doris Yeung to her own mother's violent murder. That's certainly a heavy burden for any filmmaker to bear. And knowing about this makes it more difficult for a critic to approach the film fairly. At least it certainly proved so for TrustMovies. Yet Motherland is, for the most part, a dreadful piece of film-making. Not knowing Ms Yeung nor her work (this is her first film of any kind, full-length or short, narrative or documentary), nor the actual details of her life, TM can only guess that this tyro filmmaker is too close to her material to do it any kind of justice.

Did Ms Yeung, shown at right, try to stay too exacting about the real details, or did she err in the opposite direction by creating a "fiction" tale brimming with money, murder, jealousy and betrayal. (Maybe the real details were just so: a melodramatic hash of M, M, J & B.) Whatever: I can say that what hits the screen starts off bearably, if a little shakily, in Mexico, where our heroine lives happily enough and in very nice quarters until she receives a middle-of-the-night phone call. Once she returns to San Francisco and we meet her friends and relatives, and the plot, as they say, thickens, the movie goes alarmingly downhill. Performances grow increasingly wobbly, as the actors are forced into actions that appear less and less likely or real; the writing degenerates badly (one scene between a cop and our heroine is among the most inane in movie history); even some of the transitions (a visit to the dead mom's apartment) seem almost nonsensical. Somewhere around the middle of this 93-minute film, it hits home that you're attending amateur night at the movies.

Yeung has certainly cast her film with some pros, whose resumes reach down to your knees. This does not help. The beautiful French-Canadian/Chinese actress Françoise Yip (above, whose first theatrical movie was Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx) is wooden, at best.

As Yip's naughty dad, 72-year-old Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang (above, who boasts nearly 150 credits) overdoes things considerably.

And Byron Mann (above), as an old friend of the family who turns over so many new leaves you expect him to sprout branches, tends to raise his eyebrows and look happily confused. Well, he's working, right, so what's not to be happy about?

As a filmmaker, Yeung seems to favor extreme close-ups, which are interesting until plot and characters go to pieces. Then those same close-ups have the effect of making us start to snicker. (There's a scene in which the heroine listens to a conversation she's not meant to hear, which can only be occurring because the two men she overhears have zero peripheral vision. She's right there in plain sight, for god's sake! Why don't they see her?) One of the few good things Yeung manages is to make her heroine a lesbian -- without also making a big deal of it. The situation is treated as natural as anything else we see (though we also suspect that it accounts for the rupture between mother and daughter).

The themes the filmmaker addresses are all worthwhile: justice, honor and culture clash: the immigrant experience after arrival in the new land. But to get us to pay attention to these, Yeung has got to do better than slap in some symbolic pigeons (below) and then hand us at the climax a scene so ridiculous, silly and melodramatic that it immediately becomes near-classic camp. Well, there is always next time. Unless perhaps, by telling her story, Ms Yeung has gotten the past out of her system -- which may be enough for her.  If not, and she makes another movie, I promise to watch it with no preconceived notions and a hope for the best.

Meanwhile, Motherland -- not to be confused with that fine documentary of the same name from 2009 -- opens this Friday, March 18, in New York City at the Quad Cinema.

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