Amy Tan is seated, searching through photograph albums and piles of photos. The acclaimed, prolific author is opening the documentary film about her life and times.
“All right,” she says to herself, “where is her photos? I used to have this all organized. And now… okay, let me see… This is my mother as a young woman, with her friends. This is the back of the mansion where she livedؙ—just out of Shanghai.
Tan continues, “In my office is a time capsule. Seven large, clear plastic bins safeguarding frozen moments in time—the past that began before my birth. During the writing of this book [Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination] I delved into the contents [of these bins]—memorabilia, letters, photos and the like. And, what I found had the force of glaciers calving.
“I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters, or Chinese culture, or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain. I am a writer, compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty, and a tether to the past.”
Thus begins Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir—directed by the beloved, recently passed James Redford. I have seen all eight of his feature documentary films. This, his last, is Redford’s magnum opus. His film covers Tan’s rich, rewarding life from before birth through 2020.
Tan’s journey to fiction was preceded by her work writing industrial/commercial texts. “I was looking for something more meaningful, and that’s when I started writing fiction. I met somebody who encouraged me to read fiction again. She gave me a reading list. And…, she was a writer. And…, I started to write. The things I discovered about writing at that point were so important to me—it was the notion that you could write and find out what you really believed and felt.
“All these things that had been submerged, they just came out. And it was because of fiction, because it gave you a place of safety. It wasn’t about you, it was about these characters—but it was about you. And at that point I knew I would write the rest of my life, I would write fiction the rest of my life. It was 1985, 33 years old. I never was so egotistical as to think I can make a living doing that.”
Except for 1993’s ‘The Joy Luck Club’ which I consumed—along with the mass audience the film garnered—I knew nothing about Amy Tan. Didn’t even know it was based on a book, possibly didn’t even know the name, ‘Amy Tan,’ was attached to the film. Well… better late than never.
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir draws viewers into Amy Tan’s worlds, and keeps us thoroughly engaged throughout the film. I will be surprised and very unhappy if the film does not garner many awards and accolades. In any case, as a result of James Redford’s film, I am now aware of Amy Tan, and count myself a member of her international audience of readers and viewers.
Produced by Redford’s long-standing partner Karen Pritzker, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir will have its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday, February 2, 2021.
Phun Phacts: Amy Tan also became a scuba driver, and sang, quite intensely, in a rock band called The Rock Bottom Remainders which consisted exclusively of writers.
http://rockbottomremainders.com/ and Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Bottom_Remainders