This international co-production opens in the Taoyuan airport of Taipei with 13-year-year old Fen moving from Los Angeles along with her little sister and mother. Though sorely missing her friends and life in the US, Fen is happy to reconnect with her father who had stayed in Taiwan due to frequent flights to China for work.
It quickly becomes evident that the parents’ relationship is in rocky straits, and the international move is due to the mother’s cancer diagnosis. Although not made explicit, Taiwan’s cutting-edge, universal healthcare system is the reason for returning “home”, as the family would have been bankrupted by US medical fees for cancer treatment.
The family is ravaged by the triple struggles of the mother’s developing cancer, the financial strain on the father, and Fen’s attempts to adjust to the very different mores of the Taiwanese school system, where her identity is seen as the “American girl”. Being used to consistently scoring top of the class in LA does her no good in the strict Taiwanese school.
This assured semi-autobiographical debut from Taiwanese-American director Feng-I Fiona Roan clearly draws on the director’s own experiences in both cultures and is all the better for it. The cultural touchstones are all very much on point, with plenty of titbits of idiosyncratic Taiwanese culture on display. The burning of paper money for ancestors, the music-playing garbage trucks, and the harsh corporal punishment in schools all feature.
Roan places the film back in 2003 (physical disciplining was then on the brink of being abolished) along with the outbreak of the Sars epidemic that threatens the family. Sars incidentally laid the groundwork for Taiwan’s unique world-leading defeat of the Covid virus nearly 20 years later, making American Girl a rather timely feature for 2021. The heady days of Windows 98, blogging, lousy internet connections and MSN messenger chats further anchor the film’s time period.
Caitlin Fang impresses as the bilingual Fen navigating her identity and relationships with the increasingly emotional mother, her father, and her sister. A key scene takes place in an American chain restaurant where the mother bonds with her daughters over a slice of nostalgic ice cream Americana.
One can also detect shades of influence from Tsai Ming-Liang’s penchant for long, static shots. But, unlike the Taiwanese maestro, these shots do not stretch into minutes, and the film does make use of close-ups for additional emotional payoffs. American Girl took home the Golden Horse award for cinematography.
American Girl hits particularly home for anybody who has experienced the challenges of living in a different culture. An authentic look at the universal theme of family.
American Girl showed at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Awards, where it won the Best Cinematography prize.