With My Mother Shorts Program [CAAMFest Online]


This year’s CAAMFest presented an aptly packaged double of shorts exploring the complex relationships of mothers and daughters in an Asian-American context. The two films in this shorts program, Leena Pendharkar’s Awaken (USA, 2019) and Eris Qian’s Mother Tongue (USA, 2019), both concern second generation Asian-American women who must cope with their mothers’ terminal illness. Both films strike a pleasant balance between tragedy and optimism, ending with a bittersweet message for mothers and daughters everywhere.

In Awaken, Rakhi Singh (Parminder Nagra) is a successful businesswoman whose mother (Vee Kumari) suffers from a form of dementia (presumably Alzheimer’s). Rakhi is unable to care for her mother herself, so she has put her into a long-term care facility hoping that it will provide her with the best treatment possible. Her mother does not want to stay at the hospital, however, and gives the medical staff a hard time. Trying to keep her off any additional medications, Rakhi decides to take her mother back home for a few days until she figures out a better solution. This has a negative impact on Rakhi’s home life, while her mother is not showing any signs of improvement. One day, when her mother runs off to a nearby beach, Rakhi finally sees a way to help her mother.

The plot Mother Tongue, deals similarly with a second generation Asian-American daughter (Jenny Lin) and her mother (Min-wen Huang) who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The daughter recalls her mother’s last days alive when she lost the ability to speak English and could only speak Mandarin. Unable to understand her, the daughter felt disconnected from her mother. After hearing an old recorded phone message on her mother’s answering machine, the daughter is able to recall of a few phrases in Mandarin and rekindle her connection to her mother.

Mother Tongue

Not surprisingly, Awaken and Mother Tongue are twins of a sort: both feature a remarkably similar plot and subject matter, yet differ in key details that give each a unique character and charm. Awaken, for example, portrays the mother’s dementia with a jarring realism that one can’t help but imagine themselves in the same terrifying position (especially if you’ve been in a similar predicament). Here, Vee Kumari’s acting deserves much of the praise as she manages to switch effortlessly between the blank stares and panicked outbursts that are typical of her character’s condition. Indeed, the acting is excellent across the board, which along with Pendharkar’s poignantly realistic dialogue manages to give the film the gravitas that it deserves.

Mother Tongue, on the other hand, takes a more meandering, dreamlike approach. While treading on more-or-less the same ground as Awaken, it adds an interesting twist on the story by imposing a sudden language barrier between the mother and the daughter. Even though it is not an uncommon situation among Alzheimer patients, it still gives an “otherworldly” edge to the film that is just as affecting as the first film’s realism. Unfortunately, Mother tongue is a somewhat less polished film than Awaken – the acting feels stiff and the dialogue too on the nose at times, often getting in the way of the scene. These are minor nit-picks, of course, but they do stand out in such a short film. Nevertheless, the film’s overall message more than makes up for them.

Awaken and Mother Tongue are two rather straightforward, but still powerful films that accurately portray the pain of a daughter losing her mother to a debilitating illness. Each film shows that, despite all the pain and heartache, one can always find a way to cope and cherish their memories with a lost loved one.

The “With My Mother” shorts program was shown at CAAMFest Online on May 22.