The Taiwanese drama “Reclaim” is something of an upside down “Joy Luck Club.”
It’s not about Chinese American immigrants, or daughters who come to realize all that their Chinese mothers went through to get them better lives. Writer-director CJ Wang instead takes us into “Stella Dallas” martyrdom, wandering through an under-appreciated mother’s life, framed by the things her own never-praising/never-encouraging mother never did for her.
Lan-hsin, played by Yi-Ching Lu (“Stray Dogs”) has run an art studio day care for kids for over 30 years. Her love of art may have been reduced to delicately painting the tiny items in the school’s tastefully decorated doll house, but the work was steady and it helped her and her husband provide for their college-educated kids and paid for an apartment big enough for them, even big enough to take her father-in-law in during his final years.
But Lan-hsin comes home not to an empty or particularly clean house. Her layabout retiree husband David (Shih-Hsun Kou) literally will not lift a finger to clean it. He wants to know what’s for breakfast/lunch/dinner, passing on “remember not to” instructions for whatever they’re having. He’s pulled mountains of her books and the likes off the shelves, figuring they’ll have more room if her stuff is out of the way, “tossed.”
David? He’s a hoarder — teapot collectibles he’s sure will appreciate in value, busted appliances he won’t fix, artwork created by his dad, etc.
A guy who won’t clean up a mess he’s made on the toilet or return the milk he’s just taken from the fridge can’t be expected to not be a burden, not at this stage. It’s like expecting him to not monopolize the TV.
Her chilly, combative mother (Hee Ching Paw) is slipping into dementia, sneaking out of her nursing home and getting lost, “confused.” It’d be better if she moved in with them.
Even getting a “Where would she stay?” (in Mandarin with English subtitles) out of David seems like too much to ask. He pays his wife that little mind.
When we meet his flighty, self-absorbed sister, hear her latest “next big thing” business scheme (high end cemetery sites for ancestral ashes to rest in eternity) and see her, too, impose on the ever-imposed upon Lan-hsin, we wonder if it’s genetic.
All information in the family is filtered through “reasonable” mom, as David’s dismissiveness and knee-jerk reactions to every misstep have made their architect/planner daughter (Chia An-yu) and expat college teacher in America son wary of telling him that she has quit her job, broken up with her boyfriend and is moving back in with them, and that the son and his wife are considering moving back to Taiwan, abandoning their expensively-won academic careers to take over his wife’s family farm out in the country.
One thing we pick up, and quickly, is how their kids have inherited Dad’s selfish self-absorption and willingness to dump literally every chore, tiny task or inconvenience onto their mother.
“Mom, have you booked our FLIGHTS yet?” “There’s a delivery for me downstairs, would you get it? And can you spot me ($460) to pay for it COD?”
We see. We absorb. We get hints of the life, career and travels Lan-hsin wanted for herself, which her mother dismissed, discouraged and blocked.
And as Lan-hsin enterprisingly sets out to find a new home big enough for all of them to live, if need be, we wonder if she will snap, if this selfless woman will “Reclaim” something for herself from this family that’s leaned on her for decades.
“When people are selfless, all of their potential can be realized,” she’s been taught. Too bad nobody she’s related to learned the same lesson.
Writer-director Wang, making her feature filmmaking debut, lets scenes and shots linger past their payoff, which makes “Reclaim” drag along, a tale with 95 minutes of incidents, minor (and perhaps imagined) crises and apartment hunting that plays out in 124.
The complain-to-her-mother framing device makes one question the nature of some of the calamities that pile up on our heroine. Is some of this an alternate timeline, with an ungrateful daughter deciding that mom’s limiting choices are actually what gave her life value?
That means we’ve wasted a lot of time shouting at the screen, wanting this downtrodden woman to chew out her kids and throw things at her stunningly narcissistic husband.
Interesting subtexts here depict Taiwanese family expectations, “ingratitude” as the ultimate sin, note duty to one’s parents and dip into the gambling nature of the culture. Everybody’s looking for a scheme, the next shortcut to riches. We can see the traps. Sometimes, Lan-hsin can, too.
But the slow pacing and sidebars tend to muddle the messaging and make one wonder just what the hell the message is? Stick up for yourself? Be “selfless” so that you can best serve your family? Beware get rich quick schemes?
The mixed-bag “Reclaim” turns out to be doesn’t hide the fact that there’s a tighter, more impactful movie in this material, a common complaint with overlong made-for-Netflix productions. Indulging the filmmaker, like a mother indulging her kids for too long, doesn’t do anybody any good.
Cast: Yi-Ching Lu, Shih-Hsun “Johnny” Kou, Chia An-yu, Hee Ching Paw and Mason Lee
Credits: Scripted and directed by CJ Wang. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:04