In the film based on her memoir “Mulberry Child,” Jian Ping speaks of her family’s ordeal during the Cultural Revolution with searing detail and not an ounce of sentimentality. The same can’t be said of director Susan Morgan Cooper’s heavy-handed approach to the material.
Moving between a present-day mother-daughter clash of values and a personal history of life under Mao’s regime, her docudrama is an awkward mix. Especially distracting are the reenactments, which undercut the power of the film’s archival images — among them photographs taken surreptitiously by one of China’s Red Guardsmen.
Jian Ping’s thoroughly American adult daughter, Lisa, at first resisted reading “Mulberry Child,” and the film revolves around the author’s attempts to bridge their cultural divide. Key to that process is the trip they take from Chicago to China for the 2008 Olympics and to visit family.
Interviewed separately and shown in strained conversation, the two women embody not just the obvious tensions between tradition and modernity, but a quandary that all immigrants face: what must be lost in pursuit of greater opportunity and fewer political constraints?
A more personal thread, involving unapologetic ambivalence toward motherhood, imparts a dark undercurrent to the multigenerational saga. For Jian Ping and her mother, whose wordless exchanges are among the film’s most affecting moments, emotional composure was a matter of survival; their fate was in the hands of the Party.
Their perspectives differ, but their descriptions of persecution, deprivation and resilience are far stronger than the staged scenes that illustrate them.
“Mulberry Child.” No MPAA rating; in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.