Combination of Noir and Immigration Tale Doesn’t Quite Work in Motherland


Raffi Tang (Françoise Yip) is living in Mexico when she gets word of her estranged mother’s death. Motherland, writer-director Doris Yeung’s feature debut, begins with Raffi’s journey back to San Francisco, where she tries for several kinds of closure. A shut-down young woman whose coming out as a lesbian ruptured family relations, Raffi spends much of the movie saying no, refusing everything from food to the settlement her father (Kenneth Tsang) is offering to tie up her mother’s contested estate. There’s a lot in Motherland that’s left unclear, an attempt at noir-ish ellipses that Yeung (whose own mother’s murder in 2004 inspired the film) can’t quite pull off. The conflict between Raffi’s parents isn’t articulated well, so the circumstances of her mother’s death—an apparent home invasion gone wrong—grow more confusing as a conspiracy plot is revealed. Raffi’s uncle arrives from Hong Kong to make one of the film’s themes—the rotten underside of alluring “American Dream” rhetoric—painfully clear, but the main characters’ engagement with it feels nominal. Despite its ambitious combination of murder mystery and cautionary immigration tale, Motherland doesn’t quite hold together, lacking both the fuel to reach a rolling, procedural boil and the intimacy to simmer with emotion.