Film Review: Mulberry Child

This documentary about a Chinese mother-daughter relationship veers uncertainly from family drama to an overall survey of Communism’s rise and devastating human effect.

Mulberry Child originated as a book written by Jian Ping, in an attempt to get closer to her detached, all-too Americanized daughter, Lisa. In it, she tells her story of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, which involved her parents being accused of apostasy, the imprisonment of her father and his official, heartbreaking denouncement by his family.

Filmmaker Susan Morgan Cooper had a powerful story to tell here, but her handling of it feels often awkward and all over the place. She does herself no favors with black-and-white actor reenactments of past events in the Pings’ life, going back to a staunch grandmother of Jian. These sequences are both jarring and unconvincing, particularly because the actress playing Jian’s mother bears no resemblance to the actual woman, who is still alive and interviewed here. She gave her daughter very little maternal affection, which would account for the desperate need Jian has to connect to a largely indifferent, callous-seeming daughter.

Jian and Lisa, a thoroughly modern, jogging, hard-working and partying Chicagoan who has largely dismissed her Chinese roots, travel to China together. The inevitable re-bonding between them occurs, interlaced with a lot of clueless shots of Lisa reading her mother’s book on a train. I just wish Cooper had either done a straight documentary or a feature film about the Pings, as this hybrid approach dilutes the undeniable power of their saga.