The opening scene of Alvin Tsang’s autobiographical documentary film, Reunification, is awash in the peaceful sounds of ocean water gently glossing over the viewer, suggesting he’s lounging on a beach…but we soon realize that Tsang is quietly drowning.
As Reunification shows us in intimately self-reflexive ways, Tsang has, for years, been sinking under the weight of the unresolved questions of his childhood upbringing and relationship with his family. Set to make its world premiere this month at the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), Tsang’s documentary recounts his turbulent migration from Hong Kong to Los Angeles as a young boy and its remaining effects on the now 39-year-old New Yorker.
When he was only six-years-old, Tsang’s mother, brother and sister left for America while Tsang stayed behind with his working, and often absent, father. As both of his parents struggled to make ends meet on either side of the world, Tsang spent the majority of three years alone in an empty Hong Kong apartment, dreaming of a time when the household would be restored. Yet when both halves finally reunited in the United States, the time spent apart would prove to cause an irrevocable schism within the family.
It was not until Tsang started school at UC San Diego that he finally found a long-awaited escape from a life of familial rubble. As a visual arts major, Tsang, Warren ’98, familiarized himself with film as an art form under the tutelage of professors and filmmakers such as Thomas Allen Harris and Jean-Pierre Gorin. “UCSD really opened my eyes up to see a much bigger world, even though it’s still a bubble world within the university,” Tsang says. “But still it opened me up in terms of filmmaking, learning from so many good teachers about art film and video art.”
After college, Tsang purchased a camera and began to arbitrarily shoot footage of anything and everything. On a whim he brought the camera along to the hospital after the birth of his brother’s daughter, the first grandchild of the family. From there, he began to turn the camera on the remaining members of his family and began the long, 17-year procedure of making Reunification. Footage would be shot and placed on a shelf for years at a time, before periodically undergoing editing treatment and then returning again to hibernation. If anything, the sporadic construction was an indication of Reunification as more of a remedial exercise and less a filmmaker’s passion project.
“Maybe 60 percent of the film was self-therapy,” Tsang says. “That was before I actually sought therapy through a mentor. The first 10 years of making this film was more like a bandage—self-healing without knowing that I was doing it. It was something that was needed for me to do, unconsciously.”
While Reunification is a patchwork of his own life through family photos and home video footage, Tsang’s tale can truly be a chronicle of any other immigrant’s feelings of family, confusion, displacement and belonging. There is immigrant universality in Tsang’s poetic narration, desperately searching for closure on a complicated process of relocation.
A beautiful film both infinitely personal and profoundly universal, Reunification is the story of one Triton’s search for peace in the chaotic, often alienating existence that is the immigrant’s journey. Tsang’s film will screen at SDAFF on Saturday, Nov. 7 at Mission Valley’s Ultrastar Cinema before screening again on Monday night at UC San Diego’s Atkinson Hall Auditorium. Tickets for both viewings are available for purchase on SDAFF’s festival website.