“Lisa and I had very little in common.” Summing up her relationship with her daughter, Jian Ping sounds at once resigned and resilient. Her desire to do something about the gap between them is made evident in a scene early in Mulberry Child. Seated at Jian’s kitchen counter in Chicago and stabbing at cubes of watermelon as they speak, the women describe the problems they see between them: “I don’t see you enough,” begins the mother, “I really want to see you more often and spend more time with you.” Lisa sighs, “What does that really mean?” When Jian tries to clarify — they might eat dinner and watch TV together — Lisa demurs, “It’s not something that I do.”
What Lisa does do, apparently, is work 60 hours a week, go out with her friends and travel, say, to Turkey or Morocco, “on a whim.” Brief clips show her on the sidewalk or clinking glasses with friends. “Every part of me and every part of what I’ve experienced the past 10 years,” she says, “feels like the American life.” This life is very different from her mother’s, or at least her mother’s past life, which is the focus of Susan Morgan Cooper’s film, based on Jian’s book, a memoir of her childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution.
That childhood was hard, and not only because Mao’s Red Guards were jailing and torturing people. Jian’s own family situation was difficult, mostly because her mother, Gu Wenxiu, didn’t have time or inclination to show her children much affection. An early believer in the revolution, she and her husband Hou Kai worked hard to represent and support the cause: for their marriage, Jian recounts, the government gave them 20 yards of blue fabric, out of which “My mother made a suit for herself and another suit for my father” so they cold be wed in matching uniforms.
But it wasn’t long after that their lives changed, when Mao “felt threatened” by criticisms he deemed rightist or counterrevolutionary, and began arresting and abusing those intellectuals he initially courted. These included Gu Wenxiu, a teacher, and Hou Kai, a government worker who still chain-smoked, following his imprisonment by the Japanese; “My mother,” Jian recalls, “was among the first to be criticized, for following a revisionist educational line, or a capitalist educational line.”
Hou Kai was incarcerated and Gu Wenxiu (interviewed here, still proclaiming that the party saved her life) began writing daily self-criticisms and working to feed her children. Jian’s memories are surely dire, and the tear on her cheek as she describes visiting her father in prison helps you to understand how deeply these experiences so long ago have cut her, even after she came to the US to complete her graduate studies and begin her own family.
As harrowing as Jian’s story may be, the film –which screens this week at the Palm Springs Film Festival — faces predictable problems translating them to screen. While it draws from archival imagery — marching Mao supporters, impoverished villagers, and a few stills of teachers being humiliated publicly — for the most part it relies on reenactments of Jian’s memories. So, as she recalls her mother’s reserve (“She treated us her children almost like a teacher treating her students, she took care of us but wouldn’t show any emotion”), you see the actor in soap-operatic close-ups, looking stern and monochromatic. When she describes her complicated feelings as a child, seeing her father in prison, you see the actor hugging a child, the circling stereotypically and the soundtrack thick with a sad piano tune.
One of the more vivid scenes in Jian’s past is also one of the more grandly theatrical, showing two little girls (playing Jian and her sister) make their way through what narrator Jacqueline Bisset calls “ominous character posters.” The camera follows from the children’s perspective, low level and confused, as the screen is filled with billowing white sheets marked by thick black characters. Juxtaposed with the footage, these reenactments underline that you’re watching personal tragedies set against a broad and terrible historical backdrop.
But even as such images illustrate what Jian says, they’re also distractingly melodramatic. The same might be said of the reenacted scenes in which Lisa reads her mother’s book: here the real Lisa sits on a train in Chicago, bent over the book or gazing pensively out a window, again accompanied by an expressive musical soundtrack. In making the multiple layers of this remarkable story so literal, Mulberry Child focuses viewer attention but also shapes and directs viewer response, as if not trusting you to see what’s in front of you.
Another self-reenactment shows mother and daughter in an airport waiting for a delayed flight. Lisa performs being asleep, her head on her mother’s lap, as Jian’s voiceover lays out what she’s thinking at this moment: “You learn by imitation,” she says. “I wish I could let myself go and could express my feelings to her openly, but the past is like a claw that grasps me.” You can appreciate that she and Lisa have both found ways to express their feelings, in and through the film Mulberry Child. The scene needn’t be so insistent.