Written and directed by Nani Li Yang, after her son is jailed, Mrs. Woo, a matriarch with high expectations, struggles to uphold her family’s remaining reputation by parenting her estranged daughter, with whom Woo and her son’s two unmanageable teenagers must seek shelter in the U.S. Starring: Ah-Lei Gua, Kathy Wu, Demi Ke, Jiayu Wang, Travis Goodman, Ying Xie, Miles Tagtmeyer and Scott Felix.
At first Beneath the Banyan Tree gives off the impression that it’s going to lean too far into the sentimental, with its pastel palette and softened tone; however, if you stick with it, it has more to offer. The strongest element by far of this film is the relationship between Mrs. Woo (Ah-Lei Gua) and her daughter Ai-Jia (Kathy Wu). It’s a classic exploration of how strict expectations and approval, added to distance, can completely close the communication in a relationship, straining it to the point of breaking. Portraying how it warps your perspective of that person, the daughter has a very cold view of her mother, and the mother has a resentful view of the daughter. Watching them forced together and having to try and find a way through, accepting one another for who they are and their choices, is surprisingly captivating.
That’s not to say the story doesn’t occasionally trip over that heavy sentimentality it hints at. Particularly with its story of the teenagers, which unfortunately hits a too high number of cliches, and doesn’t explore their relationship enough to make it work. Sadly, the performances from both Demi Ke and Jiayu Wang also feel much weaker than what we get from Gua and Wu. When it then also tries to move into themes of sexuality, it cheapens the sincerity, having nothing new or vital to add. There is a worthwhile story to tell of teens being thrown from their homes to a new country, their family in turmoil and the harshness of American schools, but there isn’t room here to do it justice, so having it as a side to the main story, just doesn’t work.
The style of direction is pretty much what you’d expect with this type of drama, it does exactly the job it needs to. It also never tries to throw in obscure or stilted angles, which helps the pacing move nicely. It never stays too long on one shot and the editing work helps add some movement. The progression has a nice building tension lingering in the background, deriving mostly from the mother-daughter conflict. There is however a fairly strange use of music to be found throughout, it doesn’t match the tone that it’s striking either visually or thematically. It can be somewhat distracting and undermine the emotions.
Beneath the Banyan Tree is a captivating story of parental and cultural expectations, but sadly it falls into cliché and sentimentality along the way. Its central focus of the mother-daughter relationship is its key strength and it’s a shame it didn’t spend all of its energy on it. Visually, it ticks the right boxes and moves at a good pace, other than a few odd choices with score, it all works well. The performances from Ah-Lei Gua and Kathy Wu are compelling to watch, they convincingly portray the conflict between their characters and the difficulty and finding common ground. It’s a sweet story of how being a family takes work and empathy.