As with many of our seminal writers, those reading this review may feel that they already know Amy Tan a little bit. From her breakout novel The Joy Luck Club to her more recent memoir Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, Tan has used her art as an outlet for her own past and that of her family’s to great, lasting effect. And yet, the new documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir captures something new in its subject. Directed by James Redford, Tan herself is front and center for most of the film, talking through the timeline of her life, from her difficult childhood to a specularly successful literary career.
The talking heads (including Amy’s brother John, best friend Sandy Bremner, and authors Kevin Kwan and Isabel Allende) are complimented nicely by a cavalcade of old photos and some well-placed, understated animation. Choice clips from some of Tan’s more recent public speaking appearances drive the narrative as well. Redford moves chronologically for the most part, appropriately wrapping the entire piece in Tan’s complicated relationship with her mother. Following the sudden and tragic death of both her father and brother Peter within six months of each other, Tan watched her mother descend further into a suicidal frenzy that she could not fully grasp. A particularly harrowing encounter between mother and daughter is recounted, ultimately leading to Tan’s escape to study at the University of California, Berkeley. In her discovering her talent in writing, she describes finding “safety in fiction.” The middle portion that follows, in which Tan emerges as a breakout star and de facto representative of Chinese-American culture, is the most plodding but crucial to the context, of course.
For all of the openness about her own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts (she admits these elements made her fearful to have children of her own), Tan appears incredibly self-realized and content. Without a doubt, the most compelling part of Unintended Memoir is Tan’s recollection of making peace with her mother, finally diving into her past to better understand who she was and where she came from. Fun, divergent hobbies for the writer include drawing (a lifetime gift), the all-author rock band Rock Bottom Remainders and, eventually, some fear-facing underwater adventure. A late-90s bout with Lyme disease marks a particularly terrifying episode. Tan went through years of suffering not knowing the diagnosis was Lyme. The ordeal continues to have an effect on her health to this day.
In short, Amy Tan has lived a full, fascinating life, outlined here and extrapolated beautifully in her wealth of work. Redford’s brief examination marks an impressive capstone on his own career as a documentarian, cut too short. Redford––son of Robert––passed away last year following a battle with cancer. As with any well-made documentary about an artist well deserving of appreciation, if it can convince a few more people to discover their work, it’s a mission accomplished.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will air as part of PBS’s American Masters series.