“Dear Mother I Meant to Write About Death” Offers a Powerful Look at Mortality and Mother-Daughter Relations

by Brian Hioe

Photo courtesy of Siyi Chen

This is a No Man is an Island film review written in collaboration with Cinema Escapist as part of coverage of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival. Keep an eye out for more!

DEAR MOTHER I MEANT TO WRITE ABOUT DEATH is a powerful look at mortality. The documentary follows US-based journalist Siyi Chen, who learns that her mother has cancer.

Thanks to geographic distance, Chen’s mother initially manages to keep  her daughter in the dark about the cancer diagnosis, even if the two talk by phone daily. Chen’s suspicions are aroused when her mother claims that she will be taking a vacation and thus unable to speak for a while, which seems odd given modern communications technology.After returning to China, Chen realizes the real situation–her mother had a malignant tumor removed during the “vacation” time. The rest of the film explores Chen and her mother’s relationship—reflecting on distance, intimate bonds, and mortality.

It’s particularly worthy to note that  Chen’s mother is a physician. As such, her work already deals with treating the ill and confronting mortality on a daily basis. Chen has grown up being aware of this–in one of many poignant moments, Chen relates how she’s accustomed to the  smell of hospitals, because this is the smell of her mother.

Likewise, the two discuss their respective attitudes toward death. Chen’s mother is reconciled with the notion of death, viewing death as part of life, and seeing it as irrational to fear death. This occurs in spite of the fact that her profession as a doctor is precisely to stave off dangers to the health of her patients. The film spends significant effort contemplating the role of doctors, and the way that doctors and other members of the medical profession occupy a strange position at the juncture between life and death. Yet Chen has misgivings about not only the possibility of losing her mother, but also the notion of death itself–that everything she knows will one day disappear.

Photo courtesy of Siyi Chen

Dear Mother I Meant to Write About Death is beautifully shot. Narration by Chen frames the movie, which is otherwise interspersed with everyday interactions between herself and her mother, or footage of her mother undergoing treatment. In this way, however, Chen’s narration gives the documentary an elegant, refined, and poetic quality. The documentary takes a literary approach to documentary, resembling video art rather than adhering to realist conventions. This stylistic choice lends an aesthetic quality to these moments of the mundane.

Such a documentary focused on the topic of a parent’s death of could easily devolve into a sob story, but this is never the case with Dear Mother I Meant to Write About Death. Nor is the film exactly about the attempt to find meaning in the face of death, as other films or documentaries featuring protagonists that realize they may soon die have sometimes focused on.

The documentary thus emerges as  a way for Chen to deepen her relationship with her mother, and explore  dimensions of their relationship that would not come up in everyday interaction. The story that emerges is indeed sad, but it is also insightful, as an unflinching self-examination of one’s relationships with family, and a look into the human condition. For this, Dear Mother I Meant to Write About Death is a praiseworthy, remarkable work.