‘American Girl’: A Poignant Reckoning on Cultural Identity
April 15, 2022
Centered around one mother’s relationship with her daughters, Feng-I Fiona Roan’s debut film American Girl (美國女孩) is a Taiwanese-American drama that brilliantly displays the raw authenticity of cultural struggle in a teenage girl. In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to 13-year-old Fen, who, along with her mother and younger sister, move back to Taipei after spending most of her years growing up in Los Angeles. Fen’s father has been traveling between their home in Taiwan and his work in China, and the whole family returns to their tiny Taipei apartment so that Fen’s mother can receive cancer treatment.
Full of vibrantly real familial scenes, American Girl perfectly captures Fen’s struggle to come to terms with her new and unfamiliar life, her mother’s terminal illness, and her attempts to rekindle her stagnant relationship with her father. While the film highlights all relationships and aspects of Fen’s life, the real spotlight scenes are the ones with her mother, which in the beginning, are full of arguing, fighting, and quiet disobedience. As we watch their relationship evolve and grow as they both adjust, the scenes capture a quiet and adoring love between the classic Asian mother and daughter who never speak their devotion for each other in words.
As Fen adjusts to life in her all girls middle school with physical discipline and rigorous classwork, she begins to write for a speech contest about the most influential person in her life, with her entry about how much she hates her mother. At one point, her principal, who originally encouraged her to enter the contest, remarks that “sometimes, love and hate are two sides of the same coin,” a sentence that can define Fen’s entire relationship with her mother.
Every scene in this movie has meaning, and none of them serve as filler or insignificant excess. They develop the less prominent, yet valuable relationships between Fen and her sister, as they share reconciliations over convenience store snacks, Fen and her father, who begin to develop a strong bond over multiple occasions, and Fen and her new friend, who is an essential contrast between her American identity and that of a “more” Taiwanese one. Fen’s desire for her lost “American freedom” takes shape over the course of the movie through her interest in horses and horseback riding, which she craves to have the opportunity to do again.
The entire film jumps between quiet and meaningful scenes, with emotion coating the urban cinematography, and louder, more bustling scenes, with either laughter or yelling in the warm light of the family’s small apartment. American Girl does an incredible job of capturing the nuanced ins and outs of many Asian families, and the specifics of a Taiwanese-American one. The acting is outstanding, especially that of the child actors, and the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur as the slow-building conflicts and resolutions pan out in the entirety of the film.
The miniscule touches of the authentic Taiwanese language amidst all the Mandarin and English really bring the film to life along with other easily missed cultural elements, like the garbage trucks that play classical music in the streets of Taiwan. Additionally, American Girl really touches on the time period (2003) when the issue of the SARS outbreak comes into play with the family’s already fragile and tense household structure. But, even with my love for the entire movie, the final scene is most definitely my favorite with its quiet love and immense cultural understanding, portrayed in the soft, filtered light of Taipei. American Girl is a masterpiece in Asian cinema, available to watch on Netflix, and the most authentic Taiwanese-American story I could ever think of being portrayed.