Reunification (2015) Poster


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An intimate, universal family story
Jaime Nelson8 May 2016
Reunification is a universal story about family, migration, and generations. Alvin Tsang's quest to put together the mystery of his childhood--why his parents split, why they moved to America--more than a decade later strikes a chord in everyone. Whether you are also a first generation American, have family members who don't like to talk about the past, or have divorced parents, you'll find a piece of yourself in Tsang's journey.

The somewhat experimental style of the film, which seeks not only to solve the mysteries of the past but to also splice back together his parents--even if just on screen--makes it all the more touching. Everyone uses the tools that they have to try to make sense of their lives, but it is rare that other people have the opportunity to get such an intimate look at that pursuit.
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The distractions, the forgetfulness, the obligations, the flow of life
rkopp-120651 January 2018
A New York City apartment, 2010. A young Asian man with a ponytail in shorts and a T-shirt drags a plastic bin into the frame. He plops down on the couch and opens it up while his cat looks on. Slowly, reflectively, he pulls out its contents and stacks them on the coffee table: video cassette after video cassette, boxes and boxes of them, camera originals with handwritten labels, some of which he pauses to read.

"The distractions, the forgetfulness, the obligations, the flow of life kept these in the closet for so long. The feelings of those years - what a difference. The first tapes in this box were recorded a decade ago. It's only appropriate to begin the film there, if I were to make one."

Of course, the young man does go on to make that film and that is it what we're watching: Reunification, director Alvin Tsang's remarkable first feature-length documentary, shot over a span of 17 years. The film takes the form of a personal essay on the classic American themes of immigration and assimilation. It's at once intensely intimate and almost uncannily universal.

As his story unfolds in nonlinear fashion through a series of loose associations inspired by his films and photographs, Tsang doesn't so much narrate the events as propose his own tentative thoughts about why they occurred and what they might possibly mean.

Why did his parents decide to leave Hong Kong? Was it because of the impending Reunification with mainland China in 1997? And how did his parents come to the decision to come to America separately, years apart, with his mother going to California with his older brother and younger sister, but without him and his father? Why was he the child chosen to be left behind, with a father who worked around the clock and was rarely home?

At one particularly poignant moment after he arrives in Los Angeles, visiting his newborn niece at the hospital on her first day, Alvin watches his brother Andy tenderly touch his wife Michelle and tell her, "My honey is a strong and courageous woman." This prompts our narrator to ask, "Was it like this when Mom and Dad had us? Was the love between them like this?"

This will prove to be a difficult question to answer, in more ways than one. For many if not most of us, our parents are our first great enigma, a puzzle we never quite solve though we might spend a lifetime trying. Many of the interpretations of his parents' behavior that Alvin proposes early on will need to be revised or even turned on their head before the film hits its grace notes at the end. Alvin's sister Mimi adds a woman's perspective and is a great help to him in this regard.

There is so much more to say about this wonderful film and its many subtle twists and turns, but I'm determined to write this review without spoilers. I'd like to point out, however, that while the film's style is immediately accessible to any sensitive and patient adult audience, it's also smart, self-aware and sophisticated. Many of the filmmaker's voiceover comments have multiple meanings that slyly reflect on his own aesthetic.

Take this, for instance: "I remember standing next to Dad while he took these back-up photos (from his wedding album). I remember thinking how strange it was, for someone to take pictures of pictures." Taking pictures of pictures - and commenting on them - turns out to be the whole modus operandi of Reunification.

And then there's this (which is also a terrifically acute and hilarious thumbnail sketch of his father): "If Dad were an artist, he'd be a minimalist. He enjoys simplicity, hates excess. He works at a label making company. He sometimes salvages sheets of unwanted labels and sews together pillow cases and blankets. He uses mint-flavored dental floss. His logic is, it's stronger than regular thread, it smells good, and you can use it to floss your teeth in bed when you wake up.

"I used to hate his cooking: always plain and without much salt or any spices. After my complaint, his answer was, You want the taste of real flavor. Why so salty and oily? Don't spend so much money on unnecessary things, since you don't even have a job.

"I see his point whenever I look at my bank statement. Sometimes, it's very hard to accept his simple ways, but for some reason, I like his cooking now. I don't know if my palette adjusted to his cooking, or if his cooking adjusted to my palette."

Alvin Tsang is not his father's son for nothing. He too is an iconoclastic minimalist. Reunification suggests at least something of the deceptive simplicity of an Ozu or a Bresson or a Kiarostami or a Hou. It has the ability to sneak up on you and overwhelm you when you least expect it. Tsang understands the power of understatement.

Joanna Karselis's music is the perfect accompaniment to Tsang's images and narration.
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Poignant and Sad, yet Hopeful
KutWrite12 April 2017
This documentary involved me in Alvin's family dynamic. At the same time, it gave me some hints about my own development and emotional makeup.

One interesting facet is the parallel between the reshuffling of this family and what was simultaneously happening in the relationship between China and Hong Kong.

I have known Alvin for about 15 years, but this film gave me new insights to his intellectual and emotional depth. I also learned a lot about Chinese culture, and the difficulties of assimilation.

This movie is both entertaining and deeply educational.

One addition I'd like to see is an update on where each family member is now, and how they might have changed since the filming.

I highly recommend it.
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Biographical film as a mode of existential exploration
Ilyas Lu17 December 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Reunification is a film that evokes deep reflection over some fundamental questions of life. Why do we suffer for reasons that often seem beyond us, what has been lost from the past that is critical to our growth in the future, and what are those material and psychological sources of the alienation and void we so frequently experience? Reunification is a poignant, thorough, and inspiring account of the fluctuating loss and retrieval of human individuality and identity. Reunification successfully performs an important artistic function here, and that is to transgress conventional limitations of the context in which it is produced in order to evoke self-exploration and contemplation by representing things previously deemed unrelated or irrelevant, in their central interconnection and importance.

A vivid and intimate journey towards that which is seemingly irredeemable; nostalgia with all its pleasure visually represented with an intrusive pain that leaves the viewer reevaluating what is of typical value in everyday life and what is in fact invaluable yet intangible. Alvin's narrative and beautifully collated footage brings us face-to-face with a neglected side of our subjectivity – that side which records the magnitude and sublime experience of those delicate, ephemeral, and enduringly impacting moments of life. Reunification, hence, is at once a cinematic metaphor signifying the symbolic juncture in which a dispersed family is brought together again despite their dispersion in physical space.

Reunification recounts an upbringing where certain terms were privileged over others - where labor production was emphasized over human connection, and emotional silence over exploration and acceptance, while maintaining the hope in recovering that which is seemingly lost, and if not, then to envisage through visual representation the prospect thereof.

The governing question is as follows: does the narrator hand over his aspirations to the negating and alienating force of an austere and disconcerting past, or does he embrace the authenticity of his identity and experiences, and pursue a reunification - for which he yearns - with that which is both so intimately present yet so fleetingly absent. It is left to the camera and creative prowess to aesthetically destabilize the present by unearthing the reasons for how and why it has come to be as it is, as well as to offer us the possibility of a harmonious, and perhaps, more hopeful alternative.
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...a heartfelt story of an immigrant family in crisis.
wllkr29 November 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Reunification is a heartfelt story of an immigrant family in crisis. The film was well made, though I did feel a certain sense of alienation at points being a fourth generation American myself. I still found relatable aspects, and though somber and slower at times, it was an enjoyable piece. It was more than just a tale of immigration, but a tale of family tribulation full of subtle complexities.

The film ends on sort of a sad note. It's not what I would describe as a "feel good" type of film though it's a thinker. There is some resolution, however a number of questions remain, as is often the case in life. There was a small tribute segment to the immigrant families of the past which I appreciated especially as it reminded me of what was sacrificed for past generations in more volatile periods of American history to get to where we are today. I would certainly recommend the film to second generation Americans and immigrant families, especially those of Chinese heritage.
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A subtle but touching family drama
Alan Q Chen21 November 2016
Warning: Spoilers
If you've ever experienced your parents getting divorced, then you know the kind of yearning that a child has for a happy, unbroken home.

In his film "Reunification", Alvin Tsang shares with you the true story of his broken family. In an unflinchingly personal yet subdued voice, he recounts the immigration of his family to the United States and the traumatic effects it had on him throughout his life. Piece by painful piece, he thoughtfully puts together the jigsaw puzzle of his family history to tell his sorrowful tale.

As a 1.5 generation Asian American immigrant myself, I was touched by Alvin Tsang's story. It brought to mind the sadness and searching for answers I've done in my own life regarding my parents' divorce. And although the film struck a sorrowful chord in me, it was comforting to feel the sympathetic sad song in someone else's life.

As sometimes happens with jigsaw puzzles, you get to the end and find that there's a piece missing. That one right in the center, where the eye is supposed to be. It's table-flippingly frustrating, and you can choose to either fixate on the mysterious missing piece, or you can do what the filmmaker seems to have done and appreciate the unfinished picture in front of you. I was glad to be reminded of the wisdom of letting go.

I was fortunate to be able to meet the filmmaker after a screening of this film. He was very personable and I was glad to support his artistic endeavors by purchasing a DVD of this film. Since then, I have recommended the film to many of my friends.
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Extraordinary Documentary about Family
co-4016714 May 2016
An avid documentary watcher, I've enjoyed numerous first-person docs that uncover the inner workings of family life, from any of Ross McElwee's to Nathaniel Kahn's My Father My Architect. REUNIFICATION takes its place alongside those films. It is a rare in-depth look at the emotional, logistical,cultural, social and economic realities of a family resettling in what they hope will be a better life.

The footage is startling personal, capturing the private moments that so many of us wished we had a camera for. Splaying out the realities of his family's story, Tsang also brings a wry and intelligent humor that is so critical when revealing secrets and past events never spoken about.

I watch documentaries and films to learn my own secrets and remember I share the same bewildering challenges when it comes to family. Watching REUNIFICATION, a beautifully made doc, truly fulfilled that promise.
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This film is so much more than a documentary
noven-212 May 2016
Reunification is a masterpiece. It fact, it was amazing that the film was made at all, but I don't want to give anything away by going too much into that. The beautiful shots and editing are very effective at saying what can't be described otherwise. It's brutally honest and at the same time treats all of the family members with respect and dignity. There is a grace to the plot development that shows the story as more than the sum of its parts. I can't describe how powerful it is. Weeks after I've seen it, it continues to stick with me. It starts as a simple story that concerns his family's migration to the U.S.and builds into something that is both foreign and universal. Dark, complex secrets emerge slowly to expose a deeply moving, fascinating film unlike anything I've seen.
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