Sundance 2021: Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (2021)


Marking the last film by the late documentary filmmaker James Redford, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir takes a look at the eponymous author’s life and career. 

Born in the 1950s, Chinese-American Tan is best known for her debut book Joy Luck Club. This was later adapted into a film that starred a predominately Asian-American cast, including Ming-Na Chen, Lisa Lu and Rosalind Chao.

On the face of it, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir comes across as typical documentary. Similar to other Sundance 2021 documentary Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It, the film focuses on a child of an immigrant family that manages to overcome struggles with family, cultural differences and identity to succeed. However, Redford overcomes this by making Tan, a seemingly normal person, extraordinary.

The longer we sit with Tan, we get to know her through her candour and easygoing nature. She talks openly about her family’s tragic past and the troubled relationship with her mother, which plagued her into adulthood. While this paints a tragic picture, we also see how Tan’s family history influenced her career, indicating not only a sense of closure but celebration over adversity.

Tan also talks frankly about the struggles of working under pressure. Following the release of The Joy Luck Club, we see the overwhelming success of her crossing into mainstream literature. But in doing so, she receives the criticism of her featuring Asian stereotypes in her works and gradually suffers writer’s block. Although the documentary only briefly explores these aspects, we see how expectations from others can affect their mental health and slowly hinder a person’s passion.

Behind the camera, Redford beautifully breaks down this documentary to honour Tan’s writing achievements. Via interviews from friends, family and even cast members of The Joy Luck Club, he builds a portrait of a person whose writing not only transcends different races but also subtly celebrates her mother. Meanwhile, Xaviera López’s varied animated sequences bring additional emotional depth as they visualise the moments that would other be painful to see in real life. When combined, the documentary creates a heartbreaking and moving portrait of an understated creative mind.

Overall, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir delivers a deeply personal insight that not only celebrates the woman in front of the camera but also the man behind it.

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

Director: James Redford
Runtime: 101 minutes
Country: USA

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