On paper, The Disappearance of Mrs Wu makes for an inspiring indie film. The film follows Lily Wu, an 88-year-old matriarch who sneaks out of her nursing home by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Emma, and Emma’s best friend Karen, and her friend Charlotte. The four of them set off on a trip up the California coast up to Carmel, where the Wu family first landed when they came to America. Hot on their heels is the rest of Lily’s family, with her estranged daughter Mary leading the search efforts.
The film is part family drama, part coming-of-age, part self-discovery, part road trip story, part immigrant tale, and part queer story, with director Anna Chi offering a fluffy, colorful look at this multi-generational story. The problem arises when it feels like this story is tackling too much at once. At a svelte 88 minutes, the film doesn’t actually take time to explore a lot of the concepts it offers, mostly focusing on the relationship between Emma, Mary, and Lily. But, instead of working through some of the nastiness and struggles associated with multi-generational immigrant families, Disappearance of Mrs Wu takes a lighter approach that works to its detriment.
One of the biggest setbacks of the film is how little chemistry the actors have with one another and how stilted some of the acting is. Beyond Lisa Lu’s strong attempts at holding the emotional center of the film, the characters seem to all be from different genres, uncertain as to what kind of movie they’re in. The script does no favors, full of clichéd lines that work against the more heartfelt moments. On top of that, it feels ludicrous that these characters would not be speaking Mandarin to one another, given the fact that all three generations of women immigrated from China.
There is a story to be told within all of this, and it’s not the story of a young Emma who is perhaps a little shy and insecure. It’s the story between Mary and Lily, a daughter who was left behind when her family immigrated, only to be reunited years later and feeling a sense of abandonment and neglect from her mother. It’s not a common story in the eyes of a Western audience, and not one that is told often, which makes it that much more compelling. The film is a little heavy-handed with Mary’s neurosis and anxieties, but Michelle Krusiec’s scenes with Lisa Lu, especially toward the end of the film, feel far more genuine than the rest of the scenes in the film combined.
I’m more curious about the older Wu generation than I am about the younger. Yes, there’s a youthful exuberance to Emma’s life, her burgeoning romance with a classmate and discovering that her best friend is queer. But, her story is one we’ve heard a thousand times before. Tell me about what Mary’s life was like in China when she was alone. Tell me what it was like for her when her marriage was dissolved. Give me scenes between her and her ex-husband talking about the reason for their separation (for the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but safe to say I wanted more of it). What was it like for Mary and her brother to be reunited, knowing that her parents chose her brother over her when they moved? How did Mary meet her now-husband Brian Carter and what was that relationship like in the beginning? Clearly, Mary now lives a very comfortable life in her West Hollywood home, was their family always well-off? Or is she a self-made woman?
Mary’s story and perspective are full of potential, but it’s also one that was pushed aside for a Hallmark-esque road trip flick. There’s a diamond in the rough in The Disappearance of Mrs Wu, but it’s hard to unearth it after sifting past the clichéd lines, tough acting, and jam-packed plot.
This film review is based on a screening from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Visual Communications.