A Taiwanese Diasporic Family Drama

A Review of American Girl

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 美國女孩/Facebook

AMERICAN GIRL (美國女孩) is a family drama, following a family of two girls and their mother and father after they return to Taiwan following a significant stay in the US, with the father having stayed working in Taiwan to support the rest of the family during this time. Their return is due to the fact that the mother of the family has breast cancer and has decided to come back to Taiwan for treatment. However, this results in conflict between the family, with the eldest daughter, 13-year-old Fen, wanting to stay in America and be with her friends and begrudging her mother for her illness. 

Though family dramas have been among the mainstays of recent Taiwanese cinema, ranging from A Sun to Big Little Women, American Girl stands out because of its efforts at social realism, rather than melodrama. Likewise, the focus on returnees to Taiwan from the US proves similar to other recent films that have also dealt with migration and diaspora, such as 2017 animated film On Happiness Road. 

Photo credit: 美國女孩/Facebook

In particular, American Girl manages to capture quite well the dynamics of a middle-class family caught between the US and Taiwan, with the two parents in the film struggling to save enough to move to a larger apartment. The father of the family also takes long business trips to China, something that furthers the distance between the family. 

The family dynamics are also captured quite well. Fen, as played by Caitlin Fang, and the younger sister, Ann, as played by Audrey Lin, are standout talents. Fang does an excellent job capturing the complicated relationship between mother and daughter right on the precipice of adolescence. 

Ensemble scenes between the family members are another strong point of the film, with Karena Lam’s performance as the mother, Lily, and Kaiser Chuang’s performance as the father, Huay, also being strong performances. Family scenes transition naturally between Mandarin and English when other recent films–one thinks of Tigertail–have failed in this regard. Scenes involving corporal punishment highlight differences between how children are treated in parts of America, as compared to Taiwan, and serve as an opportunity for the actors to illustrate their dynamic range in a group setting. 

A distinctive feature of the film is its setting during the 2003 SARS outbreak, something that looms in the background of the film, and adds tension as the film goes on. As such, driving the plot on is not only the dynamic between the family members, but also the historical setting.

The film seems to be based on the experiences of the director and producer, as returnees that themselves came back to Taiwan from the US, and the setting is meant to convey their own experiences. Details from the depiction of Taipei in the early 2000s are quite evocative, including scenes of smoke-filled Internet cafes or bookstores. The dynamics of the school setting strike as quite real to life, particularly when a mother of a classmate tries to discourage others from associating with Fen, with the view that she is a bad influence on others’ grades. 

Photo credit: 美國女孩/Facebook

Indeed, it is an accomplishment of American Girl that it manages to evocatively capture a period that does not visually differ very much from the present through its use of historical details such as music selection. The use of the SARS pandemic is particularly effective, in connecting this past period to the present, since measures taken against SARS in Taiwan in 2003 cannot help but recall measures taken against COVID-19 in the present. Likewise, as Lily ponders her own mortality, the SARS outbreak centers thoughts of both individual, familial, and societal mortality. 

The film’s conclusion sticks the landing, while a lesser film would have flopped. The conclusion is understated, eschewing any grand, climactic moment, emotional confrontation, or moment of high melodrama, in favor of an open-ended resolution. This is also to the film’s credit, in that family emotional sagas may more often end with quiet resolutions, rather than dramatic ones as such appear in the films.

It comes as no surprise that American Girl was well-received in Taiwan, being nominated for Best Featured Film and winning the Audience Choice Award at the Golden Horse Awards. Director Fiona Feng-yi Roan won Best New Director, while Caitlin Fang also took home a prize for Best New Performer. The film is now globally available on Netflix.