Yellow Rose (Philippines/USA, 2019) [Reel Asian 2019]

The release of Diane Paragas’ debut feature film is all too timely, given the ongoing trauma and shock of immigration detention facilities being filled to the brim with undocumented immigrant families that have been broken up all over the country. While Yellow Rose is very much about being undocumented, which impacts all of its characters, the refreshing aspect of it is that, at the same time, characters are never reduced to just being immigrant-as-victim or -martyr. Each and every one is an individual with his/her own sense of self, which candidly shapes what stance one takes with regards to being confronted with someone who is undocumented and the kind of help (not) offered. In many respects, the film’s plot of a mother and daughter forced to separate because of their undocumented status addresses how what is being splintered is not just a family but also the community of which it has become a part.

At the center of the film’s family and community is Rosario Garcia (Eva Noblezada), or Rose, nearly eighteen and in high school, who finds more interest in singing/songwriting than in studying. She lives in a motel with her mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), who is a widow and works at the motel to make ends meet and provide a base for Rose’s future. Indeed, the near future looks, well, rosy. Home life may be atypical, but it is stable and safe. Rose may not be into her studies, but at least she is in schooling. And though her mother is “ridiculously conservative” (as Rose tells her early in the film during an adolescent rant), she is finally able to get her first taste of the big city when allowed to trek to Austin with her friend Elliott (Liam Booth); more specifically, to the Broken Spoke, one of the last veritable Texas dance halls that will play an integral role in what unravels for Rose.

What unravels following the foray into big-city life does so very quickly. The base for which Priscilla has been working to build and sustain for herself and Rose nevertheless remains highly precarious and collapses that same night. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers arrive at the motel in the wee hours to arrest Priscilla, which Rose witnesses first hand. Deportation is a foregone conclusion for Priscilla, while Rose tries to figure out where she can go. The film provides just enough footage of the experiences at the detention center with Priscilla throughout the film to have it be as concrete as possible and not something simply mentioned and subsequently rendered removed/abstract from actual, everyday life on the one hand, and to avoid having the film becoming confined to its spaces, given that Rose is in fact the central character and not Priscilla, on the other hand. (Notably, Dear America author Jose Antonio Vargas was a consultant to help inject an immediacy and authenticity to these scenes.) As Priscilla expresses in the sole face-to-face meeting that she has with Rose since her arrest and detainment deep into the film, people cease to be (treated as) such once they are inside, as they are referred to or called only by letter-number combinations. These scenes’ emotional punch and immediacy are all the more striking because they are de-dramatized; they do not need to be so. A contrasting sequence is of the ICE raid at the Broken Spoke, shortly after Rose is invited by owner Jolene (Libby Villari) to live and work there. Rose finds early on that she is not the only one among the employees who is undocumented and the raid in flashlight darkness is excessively milked for suspense in comparison. Yet if this sequence further stresses the breaking up families and communities, its surprising and moving conclusion for Rose also makes the film about the kind of makeshift community that emerges from her journey.

On one level, the film is a mother-daughter journey ironically taken separately. On another level, it is also about a young Filipina American and country-music-loving Texan singer-songwriter living her life on her terms regardless of being undocumented. In this way, Yellow Rose avoids cliche narrative trajectories such as an intense legal melodrama, or worse, a teen romance between Rose and Elliott, or worse still, an identity crisis for Rose, scenarios that the script may have entertained during its transformation from a short film in 2017 to its final feature-length incarnation. Throughout it all, Rose knows exactly who she is and where she wants to call home, even as she moves house from her well-to-do aunt’s (played by Lea Salonga) and the cold embrace of her own family’s help-with-an-expiration-date; the Broken Spoke; real-life Ameripolitan singer-songwriter Dale Watson’s place; and to a motel where she finds work. In this regard, Rose is not meant to be a poster child with regards to what the country’s government policies and authorities are doing to immigrant families, undocumented experiences, and deportation, given the specificity of her experiences and perspective. By the same token, the emotions and feelings that she and the rest of the characters in the film express are sadly too familiar for everyone to understand.

Of course, the film never lapses into moralizing. It does not have to. The separation of mother and daughter already expresses it, particularly during their video call when Rose simply utters how hard it is to be going at it alone. There is no soapbox moment because, frankly, no one has the time for it. One has to keep on going, be it Rose in Texas fulfilling her love of country music or Priscilla in the Philippines forging a life of her own there.

Yellow Rose is showing at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 15.