Geneva Anderson digs into art

Welcome to Adoption—in “Wo Ai Ni Mommy,” a Jewish family in Long Island gets a new member from China and everyone has to adapt

8 year old Sui Yong (3rd from left), a Chinese orphan meets with her foster family for the last time before she is adopted by the Sadowsky family of Long Island in Stephanie Wang-Breal's "Wo Ai Ni Mommy." Photo CAAM

How do you adapt to a brand new family member from a different culture?  Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s first feature film film “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”  (“I Love You Mommy”) breaks important ground as she travels to Guangzhou, China with adoptive mother Donna Sadowsky of Long, Island, New York, to meet her 8 year-old daughter, orphan Sui Yong (“Faith”) for the first time.  

Wang-Breal acts as a fly-on-the wall documentarian, capturing the moment by moment complexities of forging a loving and healthy bond with an older child from another culture.  While over 70,000 children have been adopted from China into the U.S. since 1992 and everyone’s experience is different, this story is unique.  It is told in real time and captures the child’s perspective, often in her own voice.  Most adoption documentaries are told from the perspective of the adult adoptee looking back in time or the adoptive parents’ experience or even the relinquishing birthmother’s point of view.  This one is straight from the psyche of an 8-year-old who was abandoned as a 2-year-old and has been living at the orphanage and in foster care.  She has never seen a Caucasian before but has been told by a kindly Chinese social worker named Leila that she is going to have a good life in a place called America. 

As the film unfolds, nothing is held back.  We first meet the Sadowsky family in Long Island.  Jeff and Donna have two teenage sons and a 3-year-old Chinese daughter, Dara, who was adopted at age 14 months.  The decision to adopt another child was agreed upon by all family members and everyone’s view seems to have been respected.  The action then moves to China with Donna in her hotel room, a few hours before she is going to meet her new daughter, Sui Yong.   Her elderly father has made the journey with her.  Her husband Jeff made the difficult decision to stay at home and care for the rest of their children so that Donna could devote her full attention to Faith.  Donna is anxiously preparing stacks of hundred dollar bills and organizing gifts for the orphanage. Sui Yong’s care for 6 years has been subsidized by the Chinese government and Donna is paying $3,000,  a pittance compared to costs in the US. 

At the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Office, the first meeting between mother and daughter unfolds in the chaos of what appears to be a dozen similar introductions taking place all at once.   The tension is palpable.  A social worker carefully handles the introduction and Sui Yong is asked what she thinks of the name “Faith.”  She is then told that she will now be called Faith and she should call Donna “Mommy.”   She is told many times that Donna loves her and that she will come to love her Mommy too.   As Donna gives her daughter her first hug and pulls her into her arms, Faith is stoic, shell-shocked.  When given the chance to ask Donna questions, she asks only one—does the Sadowsky family eat fish.  To which Donna answers yes, “We like fish.”   A smile emerges.

What follows is a linear narrative—tracking moments of happiness, ambivalence, sheer fright and acting out, an unexpected meeting with Faith’s Chinese foster family, traveling back to Long Island where Faith meets the rest of her new family, and her subsequent struggles to integrate into family life in America.   Language, food, habits—everything Faith has known as young Chinese girl vanish as she struggles to adapt to boisterous Jewish family life.  Donna is a no-nonsense mom and establishes boundaries and expectations right away–Faith must learn English to communicate and she needs to learn to share what’s going on inside so that her family can understand her needs.  Dad Jeff is a very loving father who is keenly aware of the impact of his smallest gestures of affection or discipline and is very careful to treat all his children equally and with sensitivity.  

Over the course of 17 months, we gradually witness Faith’s transformation into a lively, outspoken American child.  Rapid immersion has had a remarkable impact– there is a noticeable set of cultural gains and losses and actual shifts in her personality and identity.  She moves differently, has different expressions and attitudes and now identifies herself as American.  Sadly, she has nearly forgotten her native Cantonese language but wants desperately to communicate by Skype with her beloved foster sister in China.   Of particular interest is the rare footage of adoptive mother Donna meeting Faith’s Chinese foster mother and family in China.  (In China, the law prohibits foster parents from adopting.)  We are poignantly aware throughout the film that this foster family nurtured Faith for several years in China.  This loving bond, her most significant source of attachment and love after her birthmother abandoned her, has been a healing anchor for Faith.  The Sadowskys recognize that and welcome the foster family into their lives as well.

In all, we marvel at the courage of the Sadowsky family to allow a camera to roll uncensored through this intimate and often raw experience.  Some very difficult moments are captured and this is actually what gives this film its real force.  When Faith does not get her way, she pitches a fit and says she wants to leave and return to China.  When she struggles with carrying her books due to her impairment, she doesn’t ask for help and is scolded when they drop to the ground.  At one point she blurts out to Donna “You are a white person and I am Chinese.”  Adoptive mom Donna Sadowsky has a strong parenting style.  She doesn’t always achieve immediate success but she is consistent, respectful and always listens to her children.   We never doubt her love for Faith.  As the film progresses, we witness the entire family trying to strengthen their bond with Faith and to protect her.  In all, what emerges is a very realistic account of the hard work, self awareness and love it takes to pull adoption off on a daily basis.  This is a deeply moving and intelligent film that probes the very heart of what family means while exploring issues of identity, cultural assimilation and bonding.  

 “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” is part of the year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 11-21, 2010, sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)San Francisco.  It has also been selected for the prestigious PBS award-winning series Point of View 

Screens— SUN 3.14 (3:30 PM, Kabuki, San Francisco), WED 3.17 (7:00 PM, Kabuki San Francisco).

March 13, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s film festival time again– SFIAAFF 28 Opens on Thursday March 11, 2010


It’s film festival season again and this year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival opens its 10 day run on Thursday March 11, 2010, with a gala premiere at the Asian Art Museum of  David Kaplan’s food-centric romantic comedy “Today’s Special,” starring “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi and celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey.  This year’s festival offers a fantastic program, showcasing 109 of the very best new Asian and Asian American films and videos from around the globe, with 4 films mkaing their global premieres.  Thirteen films have special connections to our Bay Area.  I always attend SFIAFF because the films are wonderfully diverse with fantastic storylines and I love their “out of the vaults” selections of old classics like the 1960 South Korean black and white cult thriller, “The Housemaid” (“Hanyeo”) whose director Kim Ki-Young is South Korea’s Luis Buñuel.  This film was discovered in the West in 2003– 40 years after its debut in Korea and considered one of the top three Korean films ever made.  The story revolves around a music teacher and his live in help–rat poison, blackmail, abortion, suicide and murder—all contribute to a farfetched but engrossing story.    The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), in San Francisco, is actively involved in producing a lot of these films, so the screenings have a warm familial quality to them.  This year, there is a strong emphasis on Filipino and Filipino American media-making through retrospectives, exciting new films and a CAAM-produced mobile game. The festival takes place in San Francisco (Castro Theatre, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Landmark’s Clay Theater, VIZ Cinema), Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive) and San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas).  Most of these films sell out early, so buy your tickets online in advance, or you can try on the day of the event at the screening venue.  Here are ARThound’s top picks:

Catch a Lino Broca flick—This year’s SFIAAFF featured director is Filipino Lino Brocka (1939-1991) and if you aren’t familiar with his work, you need to be.  The festival offers a unique chance to see four of his rarest masterpieces, beloved classics that delve into the heart of being Filipino and melodramatically capture themes of marginalization, family life and honor.  His 1985 political commentary “Bayan Ko” (screens Thursday, March 18 at PFA) had to be smuggled into France to be shown at Cannes which led to his citizenship being revoked by an angry Marcos regime. But even Marcos could not stop him, and he and a few others made the 1970s and early 1980s a golden age for Tagalog films in a country whose people are still among the most avid filmgoers in the world.  “Insiang” (screens Saturday, March 13 at Kabuki) may be Broca’s greatest film ever– depicting motherhood turned on its head–offering a mother so selfish and treacherous that we can hardly believe the impact of her poor judgement and cruelty as it plays out on her daughter, Insiang, in the slums of Tondo.  

“In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee(world premiere)  Berkeley director Deann Borshay Liem journeys back to Korea to explore her true identity  after living with the knowledge that the name on her adoption papers “Cha Jung Hee,” given to her at age 8, is not her true identity at all.  Liem was adopted at age 8 from the The Sun Duck orphanage in South Korea in the 1960’s and sent to America as “Cha Jung Hee” for her eager American adoptive family–Borshays.  Liem grew up as “Deann” in this very loving family and lived her life quite successfully.  She ultimately became the executive director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.  She essentially forgot who she was before she came to America.  Through dreams and events that jarred long-suppressed childhood memories, the urge to know her story became an obsession.  She began to believe that she was both victim and complicit in a complex hoax that altered the course of her life and the life of the real Cha Jung Hee, whose place she had taken in America.   The film captures her attempts to heal as she pieces together her identity with what facts she can find and people she meets along the way.  Masterful editing, blending scenes from the Korean war, with stills of the orphanage, with Liem’s home movies from the 1960’s, with Liem’s experiences in Korea  add to the dreamlike quality of this film.   This is a sequel to her Emmy award winning “First Person Plural” from 1999.   

“Tehran without Permission” is Sepideh Farsi’s intimate portrayal of contemporary life in this mysterious Persian capital city that was thrust to our attention last year with its notorious election scandal.  The film was shot entirely and discretely with a Nokia cell phone and captures the pulse of what’s happening in Tehran’s streets as well as within private residences—the only havens where people can literally let their hair down.  What’s amazing about this film is its testament to the human spirit—these courageous, stubborn and hopeful people have adapted to the bizarre restrictions imposed on them with a kind of national schizophrenia that allows them to lead one life on the streets and another behind closed doors.  (In Farsi with English subtitles.) 

“Agrarian Utopia” is Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s cinematically stunning acccount of the beauty and hardships of daily life in a traditional Thai farming community against the backdrop of globalization.  The film captures two tenant farmers and their families through a harrowing but typical rice crop season by focusing on their daily lives from dawn till dusk.  The pace is slow and unhurried and draws the viewer into the sublime experience of living in nature and being subject to its whims–floods, electrical storms, thick morning mists and spectacular sunsets.   Seductive were it not for the need to survive and the desire to offer a better life to your children.  They face crippling debts,  uncertain market prices, uncoopertive water buffalos, the forces of nature and a daily struggle for food.   Facing pressure from their wives, they refuse to abandon what they have and know for uncertain  factory jobs in an alienating urban environment.  They hold out against increasingly unsurmountable odds, hoping for a turn of events but distrustful of the electioneering politicians in distant Bangkok who are crying for reform and a return to farm subsidies with reasonable repayment rates.  We watch them trap and eat rats, snakes, dogs, worms, and honey-whatever they can find and–they remain genuinely thankful for daily survivial.   One neighboring farmer, divorced, and with no obligtaions, has embraced organic farming which requires more work initially but has long-term benefits.  Sadly, these families feel they do not have the luxury of time and chose to struggle on.  (In Thai with English subtitles.) 

“Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part 4-5” The West Coast premiere of Shanghai conceptual artist Yang Fudong’s (born 1971, Beijing) five-part black and white cinematic extravaganza that explores the uncertainty facing China’s new generation of urban youth as they confront the disparities between their real and imagined lives set against the backdrop China’s new and rapid modernity.  The highly-acclaimed series made a splash at the Venice Biennial and recalls the black-and-white prewar films of the 1930s and 1940s China and postwar avant-garde film noir.  The title references the legendary Seven Sages, a group of 3rd century Chinese intellectuals who separated themselves from civil society to lead Daoist-inspired lives (fueled with heavy alcohol consumption) in the countryside.  Parts 4 and 5 complement the Shanghai exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  Part 4 covers incarnations of the seven intellectuals as fishermen and travelers in a new frontier isolated and alienated.  In Part 5, the seven intellectuals return to Shanghai, where they take up meaningless jobs. They are shown drinking and cavorting (full frontal nidity) in a banquet hall, and as the scenes take on an increasingly surrealistic tone, the nonsensical seems an analogy of contemporary urban life. 

The festival closes with a gala premiere of Bay Area-native Arvin Chen’s campy romance “Au Revoir Taipei,” set in Taipei’s markets, back alleys and karaoke bars.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment