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Jim McHugh/Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (2021)

Amy Tan, the original “pick me Asian” – an Asian expert at telling white people what they want to hear – may not have been one intentionally or consciously after all, at least per James Redford’s documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.”

Author of bestseller “The Joy Luck Club,” Ms. Tan has inspired generations of pick-me Asians, both within and outside creative fields. But judging from the film, Ms. Tan would be more aptly characterized as a classic, but different, Asian archetype: the “compassion junkie” – an uncommonly melodramatic person who wallows in their own victimhood and thrives on the pity and attention they draw from others. They would readily open up about their sufferings to any random stranger who would listen. This is a trait she seems to share with her mother.

Ms. Tan’s mother, Daisy, was an extreme case of compassion junkie, bordering on manic depressive. She threatened suicide whenever things didn’t go her way. She told anecdotes of rape and other horrors she endured as a concubine back in China. It was only natural to empathize with her. Her mental instability made perfect sense in light of her trauma. Still, with her psychological state and history of crying wolf, one might pause and take her allegations with a grain of salt. But not Ms. Tan. She believed her mother’s lurid tales word for word despite being fully mindful of the manipulations and emotional abuse mom meted out to her. Her mother’s unreliable accounts just happened to perfectly fit the yellow peril narratives prevalent in the West. Transcribing those, as it turned out, was a fast track to literary titanhood.

The late Redford had the good sense to confront Ms. Tan with the misgivings some Asian Americans (i.e., the non-pick-me ones) harbored over her oeuvre. But the film’s crew is overwhelmingly white, and it shows. When Ms. Tan rebuffs these very legitimate reservations from the Asian American community, the filmmakers let Ms. Tan off the hook and prefer to entertain puffier tangents such as her participation in the novel-ty band, Rock Bottom Remainders, with fellow musical amateurs such as Dave Berry, Stephen King, Matt Groening etc. Too bad this is one such instance in which a mostly uncritical documentary could greatly benefit from cultural fluency, and its crew has shown none.

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