American Girl (美國女孩) is a slice-of-life drama that captures a short but turbulent period in the life of 13-year-old Fen (Caitlin Fang, 方郁婷), who is suddenly transplanted from Los Angeles to Taipei, where her father works, due to her mother’s cancer treatment.
The much hyped film was made available last week on Netflix after a strong Golden Horse showing last year: Fiona Roan Feng-i (阮鳳儀) won best new director, Fang claimed best new actor while the film won best cinematography and the Audience Choice Award.
The challenges of adapting to a new culture and its school system will resonate strongly with diaspora kids caught between both worlds. The details — from being hit by a teacher over bad test scores, to being called “American” by classmates and wolfing down banana floats at Swensen’s for a taste of home — are trips down memory lane.
Photo courtesy of iFilm
Meanwhile, the 2003 SARS epidemic looms, and the film puts great care into reconstructing the social and cultural atmosphere of Taiwan during that era. The story mirrors Roan’s real-life experiences, drawing from a period in her upbringing and her family’s relationship.
Even though they can speak Mandarin, Fen and her sister Ann encounter difficulties adapting to their new environs while dealing with their frazzled parents. It’s reverse culture shock for Fen, who already had to go through this process when they first moved to the US. She adapted well, becoming a straight-A student with a best friend who shares her passion for horse riding, and desperately wants to return to America. Whether simply going back will fix all her problems is something she has to grapple with.
Their mother Lily (Carena Lam, 林嘉欣) isn’t coping well with her illness, and it’s taking a toll on the family. She frequently brings up her possible death and seeks something to blame it on, while father Huay (Kaiser Chuang, 莊凱勛) is under pressure to provide a better living for his family. He cares for the children and tries to connect with them, but he barely knows them.
Photo courtesy of iFilm
Even though Fen is the main focus, she’s not the only one who is dealing with distress; the entire family is in turmoil as the adults are not well enough to keep their lives entirely together.
Lily and Huay have much to figure out as they’ve been living in separate countries, only reunited under unfortunate circumstances. They aren’t just relegated to the background as the protagonist finds her way; they’re given depth as flawed, complex characters, providing some genuinely happy moments for their kids during this unhappy time.
Huay and surprisingly mature Ann play vital roles too as they cope in their own ways, but Fen and Lily’s temperamental conflict is what makes the film.
Most of Fen’s frustrations are directed toward her mother, and she lashes out whenever Lily speaks about dying. While Fang won the acting award, Lam does a solid job portraying Lily, who isn’t the most sympathetic character. She resents her illness and her circumstances, especially Fen’s constant complaining about Taiwan and acting out. The two do share some poignant conversations that speak to gender roles in Asia, such as Lily wanting to be reborn as a man in the next life.
These nuances add much to the film, keeping it from becoming another feel-good, melodramatic, coming-of-age movie with a big message and teary reconciliation.
In fact, there aren’t really any major transformations or revelations in the movie. Life just goes on.
Instead of harping on the obvious, Roan seeks more to explore the intricate mother-daughter relationship — especially in Asian society — and make sense of the messy yet often-unspoken emotions and ties that ultimately bind a family together.
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