Mulberry Child: Film Review

Doc about four generations of women in a Chinese-American family is affecting but could use fine-tuning.

Susan Morgan Cooper's doc centers on several generations within a Chinese-American family.

A portrait of intergenerational difference (and similarity) within a Chinese-American family, Susan Morgan Cooper's doc Mulberry Child will move viewers, even if it might have been more potent in a different format. Performance in a niche theatrical run will depend on spreading word among Chinese immigrants and their children.

Chicagoan Lisa Ping is a young woman thoroughly invested in American consumerism and an on-the-go lifestyle. When, early in the film, mother Jian Ping says "I want to spend more time together," Lisa whines "what does that mean?" and complains about the 1.5 miles she'd have to travel.

Distraught at the lack of connection between them, which she eventually realizes has much to do with her own parenting style, Ping writes a book (the basis of this film) about her childhood in China, where she and her parents endured a great deal during the Cultural Revolution. Ping's parents, both idealistic about Communist goals, were accused of apostasy -- her father imprisoned and her family forced to officially renounce him.

Ping's story explains her own stoic, overachieving tendencies, and there's a strong poignant streak as she describes her mother's cold caregiving style -- for physical affection, she had only her grandmother. As the film outlines the way Maoism evolved and the hardships it inflicted on Chinese citizens, Ping's story offers sad insight into the long shadow history can cast over family dynamics.

Adapting this story, Susan Morgan Cooper uses a great deal of reenactment, going so far as to present black-and-white photos of her actors in the place of actual family pictures. Given the energy spent here (Quyen Tran's cinematography is lovely throughout; the generally fine score has overemotive moments) one wonders if the doc mightn't have been much more involving as a feature adaptation, perhaps with documentary material used as bookends. Doing that might have encouraged the filmmakers to downplay footage of the Pings visiting China together in 2008, where presentation of their happy mother-daughter escapades has the feel of a sentimental TV commercial.

Production Company: Morgan Cooper Productions
Director-Screenwriter: Susan Morgan Cooper
Based on the book by Jian Ping
Producers: Susan Morgan Cooper, Jian Ping
Executive producer: Ellis Goodman
Director of photography: Quyen Tran
Music: Kyle Eastwood, Matt McGuire
Editor: Sean Valla
No rating, 85 minutes.