The Last Stitch (USA, 2019) [Reel Asian 2019]

It’s not uncommon for documentaries to touch on stories that are truly personal to a filmmaker and The Last Stitch is a poster example of how to do that well. Alfred Sung’s love letter to his family might not be the most exciting or provocative of stories, but it’s a surprisingly emotional narrative that is sure to be an affecting experience for anyone with immigrant roots. If you happen to be from Toronto, the emotional punch will ring even louder.

When Alfred Sung was told that his parents would soon be retiring from their traditional Chinese garment tailoring business, he set out to film a documentary that would preserve his family business on screen. But what starts off as a detailed examination of the declining tailoring industry, slowly evolves into a personal story about immigration life in North America. The story takes place primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, but also highlights events in both Hong Kong and Shanghai.

As with most documentaries of this nature, The Last Stitch follows a particular subject, which in this case is Sung’s family (particularly his parents). What’s impressive here is the natural flow of the film, which likely comes from the fact that Sung had been documenting his family life (for personal reasons) long before deciding to make a film out of it. The type of archival footage we end up getting therefore feels more real and intuitive, which really sets up the emotional backbone of the film. In a way, it helps elevate the narrative by immersing viewers into the family’s journey from Hong Kong to Canada, in quite literal terms.

This level of immersion is also helpful in conveying a sense of nostalgia, which is palpable throughout The Last Stitch. For a film that focuses on the declining tailoring industry, this is certainly to be expected. There are a lot of educational tidbits about Chinese traditional clothing, but none of it is thrown at your face. Despite certain scenes that play out in an almost didactic manner, you can’t help but feel like you’re simply in the room with the Sung family.

When the family begins to talk about the social and political changes happening in Hong Kong, it opens the door to another layer of nostalgia. Seeing Sung’s parents watch the political turmoil develop in their original homeland, yet be miles away, is a sentiment that many immigrants around the world can surely relate to. One can only wonder how the latter part of the film might’ve shifted if it was shot closer to the current protests in Hong Kong.

And full disclosure, having immigrant roots myself and being from Toronto, the film obviously resonated with me on a personal level as well. But despite this inherent personal bias, I also believe that the film should resonate with all viewers. On a purely narrative level, the film offers a personal glimpse into both the challenges and beauties of immigrating to another country. It focuses on the things people are forced to leave behind, and very effectively weaves this recurring theme into the dissolving tailoring industry. On an emotional level, this is a film about the strength of familial bonds, which has the power to transcend any measurable distance or time. For these reasons, The Last Stitch is a strikingly important debut from an emerging filmmaker, which will hopefully reach a wide audience around the world.

The Last Stitch was shown at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 9.