Marva Nabili, an Iranian émigré fleeing the Islamic Revolution, settled in the United States. Her first film, The Sealed Soil (1977), made my list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Her second, Nightsongs, is (like its main female character) beautifully observant of social environment, human nature and the human soul. It is essential viewing for understanding an immigrant’s America.
The woman is, well, who? Alone among the main characters she is unnamed, anonymous; her husband has remained behind in a Southeast Asian refugee camp as he attempts to locate their two sons. It is likely this young Chinese-Vietnamese woman will never see husband and children again.
The film opens on two Chinese immigrants who await her arrival by plane: a father and his fifteen-year-old son. They have been in the U.S. now for three years. A letter from their cousin, the woman’s spouse, is heard as voiceover introducing his wife and asking his relations to take her into their home until he arrives. The Fungs of course do this, although Leung’s wife, Lai Ping, and two small children help make their New York tenement quarters already severely cramped. Lai Ping gets their apartment guest a job at the garment sweatshop where she works for little pay. Except on Sundays Leung lives elsewhere, on Long Island, where he works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. Survival requires this; the Fungs are partly, then, also “separated.”
The film’s protagonist is Tak Men, the teenager. His English remains poor; with his two TV-watching younger siblings, it is impossible for him to study at home. The cousin’s intrusive arrival further pinches his domain. She speaks no English, and they both keep to themselves. She ends up rescuing his life from a bullet.
Teased and bullied by peers at school who are immigrants of longer standing, Tak Men finds “protection” in a gang. Nabili’s fictional film records the recruitment and the boy’s slippage into the gang’s domain; but when he is handed a gun, he wants out. There is no out. A well-meaning teacher’s bad counsel costs Tak Men his highschooling.
When Leung learns that his son hasn’t quit the gang as he thought his son had done, he publicly beats him, smack after smack after smack. But heed Leung’s words. Any shame that Tak Men has visited on the family by his gang affiliation means nothing to Leung. All he cares about is his son’s life, his son’s future. Throughout, Tak Men has been disobedient and disrespectful to his father; but he takes every smack on this one occasion when his father hits him because he knows the depth of his father’s worry and concern. Nabili’s long-shot prevents the scene from slipping into sentimentality.
The operational noise at the sweatshop is ear-splitting, dehumanizing. Cousin works well but slowly and is eventually laid off: demoralizing.
The littered streets of the impoverished neighborhood reek of hopelessness and despair. We understand that kids mistreat Tak Men because they are so frustrated with what they perceive to be their own dead-ended lives. Nabili spares us the disrespect of connecting dots, but the fullness of her view allows us to take the whole scene in.
However, there is also hope to be had, the looking forward to a bit of advancement, such as Leung’s dream of moving his family to Queens.
Some reviewers, while otherwise endorsing the film, were up in arms that we hear perfect-English voiceover of poetry-reading superimposed on shots of Cousin. I am not as convinced by these nay-sayers that it’s Cousin’s private journal that is being read from. Rather, I take these recitations as aural metaphor for the process of absenting one’s mind from a dreadful environment—such as a refugee camp, sweatshop, prison—in order to withstand it. (This is the role of the fantasized musical numbers in Lars von Trier’s brilliant Dancer in the Dark, 2000, which goes so far as to suggest that this is indeed the role of popular culture in the otherwise cultureless social U.S. landscape.)
“We don’t celebrate Christmas,” Leung tries telling his youngest children. Chinese-American is not always a felicitous fit. But Nightsongs, which is entirely wonderful, is the only film on record, I’m sure, where “Red River Valley” is sung in Mandarin or Cantonese. My ignorance prevents me from saying which; but it’s a very funny moment.
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