Part murder mystery, part dysfunctional family drama and part meditation on the elusiveness of the American dream, Motherland doesn’t fully succeed on any of its levels. But Doris Yeung’s subtle and intelligent debut feature contains enough interesting elements to mark the filmmaker as someone to watch.
Inspired by the real-life murder of the director’s mother, the film concerns the return to San Francisco of Asian-American Raffi Tang (Francoise Yip) after her mother was killed in an apparent home invasion. The young woman has spent the last seven in Mexico after becoming estranged from her disapproving mother because of her relationship with a woman.
She soon finds herself embroiled in the less than rigorous police investigation of the case as well as resuming her contentious relationship with her stepfather (Kenneth Tsang), a prime suspect in the murder.
Director/screenwriter Yeung ratchets up the tension very quietly, with key plot revelations revealed in offhand fashion and the grieving main character maintaining an impassive demeanor during much of the proceedings. While the results are at times subtly effective, the approach also produces an emotional disconnection that may prove frustrating for impatient viewers.
Yip, whose resume consists largely of roles in such action films as Rumble in the Bronx and Alien vs. Predator, delivers an impressive atypical dramatic turn here. The same can’t be said of everyone else in the uneven supporting cast, with the exception of veteran Hong Kong actor Tsang, who lends an intriguing air of ambiguity to the possibly murderous stepdad.
Opens: March 18 (Avalon Films)
Cast: Francoise Yip, Kenneth Tsang, Byron Mann
Director/screenwriter: Doris Yeung
Producer: Taro Goto
Executive producers: Doris Yeung, Kenneth Tsang
Director of photography: Christopher Lockett
Editor: Wayne Yung
Production design: Garrett Lowe
Costume design: Eileen Agas
Music: Steven Pranoto
No rating, 93 mins.