Alan Yang based the new Netflix movie on his father’s tale of leaving Taiwan. The film arrives at a difficult time: a rise in xenophobia amid the pandemic.
Based on Yang’s own family story, the film follows Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese man who leaves his girlfriend to immigrate to New York in pursuit of prosperity. The film is told in flashback as Pin-Jui, divorced with two grown children, reflects on his journey. It was supposed to have a simultaneous theatrical release that was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview, Yang talked about his own family’s immigrant experience and releasing a film about it during a time of widespread xenophobia and racism toward Asian-Americans. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
To what extent is this film an autobiographical story?
It’s very personal. It’s inspired by my family and especially my dad’s story. But I left enough room for imagination. There’s a lot in the movie that I made up and filled in the gaps and tried to make it into a compelling and emotional cinematic experience. Not just listing the beats of what happened to my dad — that’s not how you generally make an entertaining movie.
You clearly had to talk to your father about his immigration story to come up with this script. What was that like for you, getting him to open up?
It’s a pretty common experience for Asian parents to be on the quiet side and be reserved and be taciturn. And it’s alluded to in the movie. I think it’s a cultural thing in some ways, as well as a generational thing.
For me, making the movie brought me closer to my parents, quite frankly. We haven’t always had the most open relationship. And I think part of that is because of their upbringing and the way they raised me as well. Asking them questions about the movie was a great way to actually learn more about them.
I ended up taking a trip to Taiwan with my dad. And that was so inspirational and influential in the movie. Very much like Angela, the daughter in the movie, I hadn’t gone back to Taiwan since I was 7. Just the look on his face and seeing how he interacted with people and the way he spoke Taiwanese with cabdrivers — it just really crystallized what the movie could mean in my eyes.
The movie focuses on Pin-Jui’s relationship with Angela. It alludes to a son, who never makes an appearance. Why did you scrub yourself out of the picture?
Well, in some ways, Angela (played by Christine Ko) is a proxy for both me and my sister. There are a couple reasons to make the character a daughter. In some ways the movie is about Pin-Jui and his relationships with the four most important women in his life: his mom, the woman he loved, the woman he married and, finally, his daughter.
I also wanted to lightly allude to the fact that not just in Asian-American families, but in many families, I think the daughter often has a more difficult time. There’s many cases of the son being the golden child and he can do no wrong. So I thought it was a little bit more realistic and a little bit more interesting to have it be a father-daughter relationship.