Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Slight Family Dysfunction: Motherland

Ex-wives—can’t live with them, can’t kill them. However, there are professionals one can hire for that sort of thing. One woman comes to the awkward conclusion her father did exactly that in Doris Yeung’s dark family drama Motherland (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Raffi Tang has been living in near seclusion south of the border. One fateful night, her ex calls with the news of her estranged mother’s murder. Returning to the Bay Area for the funeral, Tang seems to be on decent terms with her father Stanley. Indeed, she is quite fond of her little half-sister Jaki. However, Tang’s guilt is in overdrive and the suspicious circumstances are piling up fast and furious.

Frankly, the mystery of Motherland is not all that mysterious, but the thorny family dynamics are surprisingly well developed. In a way, Motherland plays against stereotype, having Tang’s mother reject her lesbian relationship, while the old man either had no problem, or otherwise came to terms with it. Indeed, it helps explain how Tang could stay so long at her father’s McMansion, given her suspicions. Reportedly inspired by the violent killing of Yeung’s mother, one hopes her screenplay of angst and recriminations is entirely fictional.

Though certainly not perfect, Motherland starts with an effective pseudo-noir vibe and maintains momentum through the perilous mid-section. Despite common sense, viewers might even find themselves caring about Tang’s nonsensical legal dilemma inherited from her mother. Unfortunately, it is all too clear Yeung only knew how she did not want to end the film. As a result, the film struggles through one anti-climatic scene after another following the big confrontation, trying to find a serviceable conclusion. Eventually, Motherland ends in some fashion, so mark that down as a victory.

Known more as an action star (as in Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx and Jet Li’s Black Mask, so you know she’s cool), Françoise Yip is quite good as Tang, playing her as a figure so restrained, she could shatter at any moment. Kenneth Tsang, a fixture of the HK film industry who has probably made more films than Michael Caine, is also a rather grounded, believable presence as her father. At least, there is no moustache twisting here. Alas, the payoff is pretty watery soup.

It is intriguing for HK action fans to see Yip and Tsang in such a different movie context. Ultimately though, Motherland just wilts down the stretch. For Yip fans (they must be out there), it opens this Friday (3/18) in New York at the Quad Cinema.