East is East, and West is West. But nothing separates people more than generations.
That’s something that becomes very clear in Beneath the Banyan Tree, a lovely drama that charts the distances – geographic and emotional – that separate a Chinese grandmother, her daughter, and her grandchildren.
The story begins in China where a rebellious young woman, Ai-Jia, is leaving her parents and brother behind to start a new life in America, where she intends to become a writer.
Flash-forward 12 years. Ai-Jia is in L.A. and writing, but mostly for herself, and largely depending on her American boyfriend and a tour-guide job to get by.
Meanwhile, back in China, her father has abandoned the family, and her brother and sister-in-law have been jailed for insider trading. Fearful of what disaster might come next, Ai-Jia’s elderly mother has fled for America, Ai-Jia’s troublesome teen niece and nephew in tow.
The three move in with Ai-Jia (and her phenomenally patient white boyfriend). And the conflicts – and shocking personal discoveries – begin.
Yes, Ai-Jia may have been lying about her literary success. But the fictions her three relatives have been creating, and living by, run even deeper.
This is a first feature from writer/director Nani Li Yang, and it has some of the uncertainties you expect in a debut film.
First and foremost, the score is overbearing, with lots of violins telling you when you should feel sad. Second, and oddly, the film is completely subtitled throughout, even when characters are speaking in English (although there may be something kind of nice about that, as it allows different audiences to experience the film in the same way).
But she’s drawn together a fine cast, including the veteran Ah-Lei Gua – a mainstay in early Ang Lee films – as the redoubtable matriarch, Mrs. Woo, and Kathy Wu as her alternatively independent and eager-to-please daughter, Ai-Jia. Both women’s characters, and performances, are never less than believably complicated.
Sometimes Yang’s script pushes a little too hard. (The boy next door, whom the teenage niece forms a friendship with, is not only sensitive, gentle and suicidal – he’s blind, too. It’s like something out of a bad old Afterschool Special.)
But other times she teases out interesting ironies. Ai-Jia, who fled to America to become herself, has in some ways become more traditional than ever – quickly, unquestioningly, sacrificing herself for the good of her family.
Yet her teenage niece and nephew, who have known nothing but China, are more Westernized than she is – smoking dope, exploring their sexuality, and feeling perfectly free to tell off their elders and do whatever they want.
In the end, it seems, it’s generations that count – and these kids have more in common with their new American classmates than with the Chinese relatives who raised them.
Although there is a bit of forced melodrama (tip: If you’re a teen about to have forbidden sex, lock the door) and some broad comedy courtesy of a pushy friend (what’s Mandarin- for “yenta”?) Beneath the Banyan Tree is a gentle film. It’s content to make its points slowly and quietly.
But it makes them. And leaves you with a message – to understand is to forgive – that’s the same in any language.