Culture

Amy Tan explores her triumphs and trials in new PBS film


In the opening minutes of the late James Redford’s bittersweet biographical documentary about Amy Tan, the trailblazing Bay Area author is seen preparing to address an audience at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Before striding onto the stage, she takes a moment of reflect on all that has come before.

“I often think I’m just dreaming my life,” she says. “… Maybe I’ve been unconscious, or in a coma, all these years and I’ve dreamt this life up.”

From most perspectives, it has been an incredibly dreamy existence. Tan’s massive debut novel, “The Joy Luck Club” (1989) and the blockbuster film adaptation that followed rocketed her to the kind of commercial and critical success few writers ever achieve. It also bestowed her with the freedom to do something she had never envisioned: the ability to make a comfortable living penning fiction.

But there was also plenty of trauma along the way, including the early tragic deaths of her older brother and father (both from brain tumors), agonizing struggles with self-doubt and, in particular, a volatile “love-hate relationship” with a mentally unstable mother.

It’s all intimately chronicled in “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” (9 p.m. Monday, May 3, PBS), the final completed documentary from Fairfax filmmaker James Redford. The son of Robert Redford succumbed to liver cancer last October at the age of 58.

During a recent virtual panel session with journalists, Tan recalled how Redford coaxed her into doing the project.

“I was very reluctant in the beginning,” she said.  “We had a few sandwich lunches at the house in which he just talked. He was a friend to begin with and, eventually, I just said, ‘Go ahead.’ …  I was very honored because there was a good chance he was going to die. And he was aware of that and made assurances that it would be completed. And I said, ‘You know, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the moment of being with you and talking about these things.’

“So, it was like having a conversation with a confidante, and in that way very different from writing a book, but also allowing me to be completely open.”

A young Amy Tan and her mother. 

Perhaps the best decision Redford made was to put the engaging Tan at the front and center of the film. The author, often speaking frankly from her stylish San Francisco home, starts by whisking viewers all the way back to her childhood in Oakland when she developed a love for drawing and dreamt of becoming an artist.

But she realized right away that her parents, both Chinese immigrants, “would be extremely disappointed if I did something that was purely fun.”

The well-paced narrative is also driven by a lively mix of home movies, personal photographs, vintage TV appearances, bits of animation and fresh interviews with family members, friends and fellow authors.

Not surprisingly, much of the two-hour production is spent dissecting Tan’s fraught relationship with her mother, who was prone to mean streaks and thoughts of suicide. Tan and her mom routinely clashed — one …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

      

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