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Film Review: Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
by Karen Pecota

A personal look into the life and professional journey of literary artist Amy Tan is brought to us on the silver screen from documentary filmmaker James Redford in Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir. This is the last passion project James completed before his untimely passing in 2020. A rare condition took his life too early.

Like-father-like-son, it's no wonder James, the son of Robert Redford, has a unique sense of insight, transparency, humility and authenticity that he brings to his film projects. James's younger sister, Amy also has showcased her talents as a filmmaker and exemplifies the same work ethic taught by their family patriarch. I can only imagine that all the Redford children have gleaned from observing their dad in action and take to heart his direction for them to be educated, be kind and take to heart the value of "learning by doing" with whatever profession they choose.

James shares a wonderful collage of interviews from family members, friends and colleagues in his documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir as Tan describes a journey to understand her heritage and its culture. She believes to understand one's past, without changing events or their history, helps to reason how one gets to where they are in the present.

Born to Chinese immigrant parents in America during the 1950s, Tan lived through severe traumatic experiences as an adolescent and young adult, first losing both her older brother and father to brain tumors. Amy was only fifteen years old. The disease took both family members well before their time.

Tan's mother, Daisy, convinced she was cursed due to the untimely passing of her husband and son, moved the family (Amy and her younger brother, John) from the San Francisco Bay Area to Europe. Daisy hoped living in a different world would relieve her anxiety of feeling cursed. The underlying story would take Amy decades to uncover the reasons why her mother felt such a burden.

Daisy battled suicidal tendencies often putting the lives of Amy and John in jeopardy. After intense research Tan realized that her mother's suffering was common to women who survived the ancient Chinese tradition of concubinage. Heartbroken by this revelation, Tan began to use this legacy and the wealth of information it afforded her for storytelling.

Tan received her Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in English and Linguistics to later go on to get a Master's degree in Linguistics. Her studies opened the door for her to become a language development specialist serving disabled children across the country and working for the U.S. Department of Education to mainstream multicultural children with developmental disabilities into early childhood programs.

In 1985, Amy began writing fiction and her first story was published in 1986, in a small literary magazine "FM Five." After Amy's first trip to China with her mother, she learned that she had received three offers for a book of short stories that would end up being a novel The Joy Luck Club. It landed on the New York Times Bestseller List for over forty weeks.

Amy Tan is one of America's most respected literary voices. To date there are only two Asian-American authors who have turned their first novel into a full-length feature film. Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and Kevin Kwan (Crazy Rich Asians) are renown forerunners in Asian literature and culture.

The accolades and experiences Tan has received from her literary work is a phenomenon to be recognized. James uses archival footage, creative animation, and live commentary from Tan and those close to her world, to share with the film audience a fascinating journey of her life and career, thus-far. This includes a desire to discover in her hidden talents--taking up nature journal sketching. James' documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is a love letter to discovering oneself without altering one's past but to learn from it.