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Review: ‘Motherland’ Features a Strong Character Piece Trapped In a Failed Mystery

By  · Published on August 28th, 2011

Raffi Tang (Francoise Yip) is living a quiet life in Mexico far from the mother who disowned her. The two fought years prior when Raffi declared her love for another woman, and they haven’t spoken since. Her mother has recently taken to writing her daughter, but the letters remain unopened. Raffi gets a call from a friend late one night that her mom’s house back in San Francisco was just on the news, and when she calls the local authorities she discovers why.

Her mother has been killed in what appears to be a botched robbery.

Raffi heads back home for the first time in years, but while she plans to only stay through her mom’s funeral she discovers there may be more to the case than previously thought. Why is the police investigation being run by amateurs committing multiple mistakes? Could her mother’s expensive and long-running lawsuit against her father (Kenneth Tsang) be a motivating factor here? Could her father actually be involved? Can Yip possibly still look as fantastic as she did in her American debut sixteen years ago with Rumble In the Bronx?

“I don’t want to live in a place where things like this can happen. “

Writer/director Doris Yeung’s film was tragically inspired by the murder of her own mother, and while the facts of the case differ in detail Raffi’s frustration and loss feel authentic.Yip brings Raffi from shock to anger to grief in believable and powerful fashion, but like everything else in the film those emotions and reactions come slowly. It’s as much an acknowledgment of Asian sensibilities as it is of the performance though. Raffi is the core of the film for obvious reasons, but she’s also the film’s singular strength. Her coming to grips with the reality of her parents’ lives as well as her own belated step into adulthood are handled with care and subtlety by Yeung and Yip.

As a character piece the movie is a mostly engaging look at the Asian American experience with the added and uncommon focus of a lesbian lead character. The American Dream promised to all is not without its price, and while Raffi has turned her back on that dream she’s forced to confront a family who has no intention of letting go. Unfortunately though Yeung has felt compelled to drop that character into a mystery narrative that neither one of them can successfully escape from.

It seems clear that Raffi’s mother has met an intentional demise, and the limited evidence on display points towards the obvious suspect. There’s no real suspense or effort made toward misdirection, and in fact this seemingly important element of the story eventually just seems to fade away. Side characters like family friend Michael (Byron Mann) and the detective working the case threaten to offer far more than they ultimately do, but again the story that seemed so integral comes to very little in the end.

These periphery characters hurt the film in other ways too, namely in that the performances behind them are not very good. Over acting and poor acting seem to be the norm with everyone from Raffi’s pre-teen sister to the funeral director angling for a big funeral bill. Veteran actor Tsang does fine work as the father who may or may not have blood on his hands, but it’s Yip who gets the chance to shine here. This is not only her first real leading role but it’s also her first truly dramatic one, and she succeeds with a performance that grows in intensity throughout the film. She has a couple intense face offs with other characters, but it’s the scene where she frantically tries to clean the fingerprint powder from her mother’s home that carries the most emotional weight.

Motherland is an interesting film with an unusual perspective, but it ultimately comes up lacking. Yeung’s mystery plot gets away from her on several occasions, and her attempts both subdued and blatant to make her film an attack on the falsity of the American Dream are underdone. Still, fans of Yip and Asian American cinema may find enough here to make the experience worthwhile. Just don’t expect to care about the story anywhere near as much as the character.

The Upside: Francoise Yip does a fine job with her first dramatic leading role (and she’s extremely easy on the eyes); slow burn works for half of the film; sparse but effective piano score

The Downside: No real payoff; lots of threads and questions left unresolved; noir trapping fail to build to anything

Motherland is currently in limited theatrical release. In San Francisco it can be found at the SF 4 Star theater.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.