Reverse Migration and the Burden of Expected Death

in 58th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Ahmed Shawky

Nothing is as impressive as a small local story that can easily go universal. When the tiny details of life refer to global ideas, we start enjoying real cinema, such as what we experienced watching American Girl, director Feng-I Fiona Roan’s debut feature, which won the FIPRESCI award at the 58th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival.

Reverse migration is the general theme in the story of Fen (Caitlin Fang), a thirteen-year-old girl who was raised in Los Angeles before being forced to leave the States and head back to Taipei after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A decision that shakes Fen’s life, more than it does the other members of her family: the sick mother, younger sister, and long-separated father.

For Fen, moving back to Taipei is not only an uprooting from the life she used to live, but also a continuous challenge to adjust herself, in the most rebellious stage of anybody’s life, to the culture and lifestyle in the new/old city. The simplest things, like her freedom as a student inside the classroom, are very hard to get in her new place. Not to mention the way her peers look at her, as an intruder who complicates classroom dynamics with more cultural superiority/inferiority conflicts.
Fen is emotionally attached to the place she was raised in, and suffocated by a social and educational system designed for those who never experienced freedom as she understands it.

Nevertheless, nothing can compare to dealing with the ghost of death. The mother can think about absolutely nothing other than her illness, putting off plans about what her daughters’ lives should be like if she dies, and seeking – consciously or not – more attention from the people around her, who have their own problems in the new surroundings.

Director Feng-I Fiona Roan succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of a life dominated by the burden of expected death, not only inside the family, but also – and maybe more importantly – in the whole society, as the story takes place in 2003, when the entire region was massively shaken by the SARS virus outbreak.

Silence hides degrees of unsettling emotions, love and compassion become contaminated by disappointment, and a teenage girl struggles to find a comfort zone in a place to which she has zero feeling of belonging. A place undergoing a moment of chaos because of the virus, which helps the filmmaker not only to master the melancholic general feeling around her protagonist, but also to relate the story to our current time, when humankind is still reacting with the same degree of irrational fear. In these terms, the world becomes a macrocosm of Fen’s mother’s state of mind, while she (the mother) represents what we all live and feel right now, without even realizing it most of the time.

Visually, the director was smart enough not to be absorbed by the superficial aim of recreating the two-decades-ago world. Instead, she manages to bring the required number of details that make the film more poignant than nostalgic. Giorgos Valsamis’ camera keeps a proper distance from the characters in order to express the complicated dilemma young Fen must get through.

American Girl is a well-crafted, dramatically-coherent and visually entertaining film. A fresh artistic voice coming from Taipei to tell a story which is very personal and intimate, yet certainly relatable on a universal level.

Ahmed Shawky
Edited by Robert Horton