Caylee So’s “The Harvest” is another recent American independent film intended as a modest but realistic slice of Asian American immigrant life. Although it is a bit too generic in terms of story and character, the movie mostly works as a window to the lives of the people of specific cultural/ethnical background, and I just wish it could go deeper while dealing with that familiar generation conflict problem among Asian immigrant parents and their American kids.
Doua Moua, who also wrote the screenplay besides serving as one of the producers of the film, plays Thai, a young Asian American man of Hmong descent. If you have ever watched Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” (2008), you probably remember a bit about who Hmong people are and how many of them came to emigrate from Indochina to US around the time of the Vietnam War, and Moua actually played one of the Hmong characters in that film.
After the prologue scene where Thai’s calm narration tells a bit about how he was born, the film succinctly establishes his current family issue. While he has been living in San Francisco during last several years, he returns to his family home mainly because his father Cher (Perry Yung) is seriously ill due to his worsening kidney failure, and it is clear that Cher does not regard his son that highly as your typical stern Asian father.
While his mother Youa (Ying Yuen) is often busy with supporting the family instead of her husband, Thai comes to spend more time with his father as accompanying his routine visit to a local clinic for kidney dialysis, but, like his other family members, he soon gets frustrated with how his father refuses to accept the changes in his daily life due to his current illness. Apparently feeling less proud than before just because he is not healthy enough to support his family, Cher does not interact much with his son or his wife while behaving as if everything was still all right for him and his family as before, and he also quite distant to his adolescent daughter Sue (Chrisna Chhor), who has incidentally been hiding her private relationship with some black guy.
Because Thai is still unmarried, he is naturally asked about whether he has a girlfriend now when he and his family have a dinner together at one point. As an unmarried dude of Asian descent, I surely know and understand well how awkward and uncomfortable he feels about the question; I get similar questions whenever I happen to be around my family and relatives during the traditional holiday seasons, and I always respond to their nagging questions with a considerable degree of courteous vagueness.
As Thai continues to stay in his family house, the movie gradually presents the lives of others around him. At one evening party where he and his several old friends celebrate the upcoming marriage of a female friend of his, he and that young woman talk a bit with each other, and we come to sense something between them as observing their gentle interaction. When Thai and his father subsequently attend the following wedding, we get a glimpse into the cultural background of Thai and other Hmong people in his neighborhood, and there is a little interesting moment where Cher meets a bunch of elders for some conversation. As listening to them, you can feel those old traditions and values are still living inside them, though their next generations do not care that much in comparison.
Not so surprisingly, Cher expects his son to move to their family home as a dutiful son, but Thai is reluctant to say the least for good reasons. He still cares about his father despite their long estrangement, but he has a plan for his own life in San Francisco, and that makes him all the more conflicted. Besides, his younger sister will probably leave for college education once she gets graduated from her high school, and that means his father will be left alone by himself whenever his mother works outside.
The situation becomes more complicated as more issues come out among Thai and his family members. Now quite worried about his daughter’s future, Cher suddenly attempts a matchmaking for her without asking to Sue or Youa at all from the beginning, and that certainly makes both Sue and Youa quite frustrated and exasperated. It also turns out that Youa has her own issues behind her frequently cheerful façade, and we can only imagine how much she has tried to accept and tolerate her husband for years.
During its last act, Moua’s screenplay becomes rather contrived and blatant as throwing a series of jarring melodramatic moments which spell out its main characters’ feelings and thought a little too much, and that is where the movie stumbles more than once, but the main cast members of the film continue to hold the film together. With Moua diligently holding the center as required, Perry Yung, Ying Yuen, and Chrisna Chhor are believable in their respective supporting roles, and Yung is particularly good as ably embodying his character’s complex human aspects.
“The Harvest” is the second feature film of director Cayless So, who previous made a feature film debut in “In the Life of Music” (2018) before making several short films. I have not seen “In the Life of Music” yet, but she demonstrates here that she is a good filmmaker who knows how to handle story and characters thoughtfully and sensitively, and you can clearly discern how sincere and passionate she and Moua are about their film. Anyway, I am glad that Moua approached to me for giving a chance to watch the film several weeks ago, and, though I am not satisfied enough for recommendation, but I wish good luck on both him and So.
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