Subtle storytelling isn’t effortless.
Too often, the urge is to use overly dramatic plotlines to make points with the belief a lesser approach will find a filmmaker’s point overlooked.
Nani Li Yan directs Beneath the Banyan Tree with a deftly subtle hand that underscores a Chinese family’s struggle to continue tradition while accepting that they can live outside traditional beliefs.
If the way Yang delivers the story is relatively simple, what the story conveys is not.
But the approach allows non-Chinese speakers to grasp fully what a family is experiencing by allowing the actors to perform, often in silence.
The lens captures the beauty of every moment, joyful or troubled, as this tale of a family finding renewed connection while entirely out of their element unfolds.
Ai-Jai (Kathy Wu) left China for California to escape her mother’s control.
But when her mother, Mrs. Jia-Rong Woo, is abandoned by her husband and must look after her two grandchildren when her son and daughter-in-law are imprisoned on drug charges, Ai-Jai steps up, welcoming them to her home in Los Angeles.
Chinese culture teaches that family comes before any individual, but as the world expands and more doors open to other cultures, it’s a tenant that’s getting more strenuous.
Ai-Jai’s intentions toward welcoming her family are steeped in the traditions she tried to escape.
She has a relationship with a caucasian man, Vance (Travis Goodman), who knows a minuscule amount of Chinese. Even with that great barrier, Vance silently tries to comfort Ai-Jia and her extended family as they acclimate to their new normal.
It’s difficult enough to immigrate to a new country, but not speaking the language doesn’t make it any easier. Thankfully, there is a large community of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles to help ease the transition.
Granddaughter Zheng-Qi (Demi Ke) and grandson Zheng-Wu (Jiayu Wang) have been uprooted because of their parents’ actions, but they understand the language.
Sometimes, that’s not a benefit, such as when Qi, a young woman as desperate to be understood as she is to stand apart, hears her new classmates making remarks about her looks because they believe she can’t understand them.
However, Mrs. Woo is left to her own devices, milling about her daughter’s home and trying to fill her time, unable even to watch TV in a language she cannot understand.
Mrs. Woo believes she’s doing right by Ai-Jia, like when she tries to find her daughter a new romantic connection, but she’s often mistaken because of how little Ai-Jia shares.
As Mrs. Woo makes friends and joins groups, you discover that she’s got a wicked sense of humor, a trait that Ai-Jia would adore. But by allowing her unpleasant memories to inform her actions, Ai-Jai misses the very best of her mother.
These five characters fumble around each other in ways all too easy to understand. There’s no language barrier when the human condition is expressed with skillful direction and mesmerizing performance.
Of course, they will learn to live with each other and respect one another for who they were and who they are now, but getting there won’t be easy.
Beneath the Banyon Tree finds three generations on a sometimes painful journey to find peace and balance amongst them.
Each character has walls firmly in place to keep away pain and sorrow but unwittingly keeps them from experiencing their love and commitment to each other.
It’s filmed beautifully and carves a space in your heart that you won’t soon forget.
It is everything that we should demand from movies about the human condition, family, and immigration, and Beneath the Banyon Tree delivers.
You can find Beneath the Banyon Tree on multiple VOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, X-Box, Google Play, and YouTube Movies.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.