Summary: JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER follows the creation of the San Francisco Opera’s celebrated production of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, composed by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Amy Tan and based on her bestselling book of the same name. An ambitious, cross-cultural tour de force that brings together artists from China and the U.S, the opera tells a deeply moving story about the difficult but unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters inspired by Tan’s own family history. Directed by David Petersen and produced by Monica Lam, JOURNEY OF THE BONE-SETTER’S DAUGHTER will premiere nationally on PBS on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).
Tan’s libretto draws heavily on the tragic suicide of Tan’s maternal grandmother, and explores the impact of the trauma on successive generations. “My grandmother was somebody who was forced into a subservient position,” Tan says. “She was raped, and the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself.” The film follows Tan as she explores her past, traveling with her half sisters to the home in China where her grandmother lived and died. As the opera production is mounted, Tan grapples with how best to capture and preserve the emotional truth of her family story in the drama unfolding on stage.
As in her earlier novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, author Tan uses elements of her own life in The Bonesetter’s Daughter to explore the immigrant experience and the ways in which both love and history can be lost in translation. The opera opens at a birthday party in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ruth (Zheng Cao), a young Chinese-American woman, has organized the celebration for her aging mother, LuLing (Ning Liang). But the party disintegrates when LuLing launches into a delusional tirade, an early sign of her Alzheimer’s disease. LuLing’s illness and the revelation that she has guarded family secrets since childhood prompt Ruth to begin a journey of discovery into her mother and grandmother’s past.
The making of the opera spans two continents and artistic traditions — classical Western opera and traditional Chinese opera — and the film chronicles the extraordinary challenges of creating an ambitious new work of art. Tan’s collaborators, American composer Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk), and Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng (Peony Pavilion), both bring their forcefully contemporary sensibilities to the production. The film follows Wallace as he travels to China to research its musical traditions. “I wanted to write the opera in my own voice, but to make it feel like China,” Wallace says. “That was an easy thing to say; it was a harder problem to crack.” Wallace integrates music written for traditional Chinese instruments into his score, but also brings some of China’s best musicians to the San Francisco Opera to play alongside its full Western orchestra.
Chen Shi-Zheng, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young man, brings to the staging of The Bonesetter’s Daughter a blend of traditional and contemporary influences. “I don’t want this to be a Chinatown parade,” Chen says. “I’m very interested in a new form of opera — a new American opera.” Under his direction, Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage while abstract video projections create an ever-shifting visual backdrop for the unfolding drama.
The film captures the creative and technical challenges of mounting a new work, one with high emotional and artistic stakes. Tan and Chen struggle to reconcile their divergent stylistic interpretations of her autobiographical story. The Chinese and Western musicians collaborate despite their vastly different musical training. Tensions rise during daily rehearsals involving hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians and backstage personnel, as changes are made until moments before the curtain rises.
JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER shows the power of art to engage, inspire and transform. For the opera’s talented and diverse creators, the collaboration tests cultural boundaries and takes enormous artistic risks to define anew both Western and Eastern operatic form. For Tan, the opera allows her to give voice to her grandmother’s sacrifice, heal the trauma that so profoundly affected her mother, and deepen the complicated bond shared among these three generations of women.
Making the Film: Filmmakers Monica Lam and David Petersen traveled to China with librettist Amy Tan and composer Stewart Wallace to capture some of their creative process. Together with Tan and her half-sisters, they traveled to Shanghai and Chongming to explore the places where Tan’s family history had unfolded. They also followed Tan’s exploration of the sights and sounds of Hong Kong, one of the sources of inspiration for her writing. With composer Stewart Wallace, they journeyed to remote and beautiful parts of southern China where traditional Chinese music and instruments can still be heard, and to Beijing as he rehearsed with the Chinese musicians who played in the orchestra.
During rehearsals at the San Francisco opera house, the filmmakers were able to intimately observe the complex and dynamic operations of a world-class performing arts organization. From costume and set design to musical rehearsals and acrobat choreography sessions, the film follows the intensive process of realizing art on the grand stage. -- PBS Press Release
It's rare that I review anything but books here at Booking Mama, but I had to make an exception for an excellent upcoming documentary airing on PBS this Sunday. (Plus, it's kind of book-related.) I recently had the pleasure of receiving an advance copy of JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER, an hour-long movie about the development and production of an opera based on the celebrated novel THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER by Amy Tan. I found this documentary to be positively terrific and I can't stop raving about it.
One of the reasons that JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER appealed to me initially is that I consider myself to be a fan of Amy Tan's. I've read and enjoyed most of her books, and I love how she features mother/daughter relationships. It's ironic (and a little sad) but I haven't read THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER... yet. This novel, which is loosely based on Ms. Tan's life and her family history, has been on my wishlist for a few years; however, it's now moved up to a "must-read" after seeing this movie. I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who watches JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER will want to experience this novel.
While I knew that I would be interested in how the novel was translated into an opera (Ms. Tan wrote the libretto), I was kind of amazed by how much I enjoyed the entire documentary. I am not an opera fan, maybe because I have never seen one and know next to nothing about them; however, I found the creation of THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER to be utterly fascinating. It all started with a novel and six years later (with a a huge amount of work and coordination), an opera was born! I loved learning the effort that went into the production of this opera (it was almost incomprehensible to me), along with the incredible talent and creativity of so many of the participants. However, it was how the artists were able to blend the China and U.S. cultures that was the most amazing thing to me about this entire story.
Needless to say, I found JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER to be incredibly interesting. I was absolutely riveted to my television for an entire hour; and believe me when I tell you that I have a hard time sitting still and just watching t.v. I didn't want to miss a thing because the entire movie was so beautiful. Of course, the scenes from the opera were larger-than-life, but I also appreciated the parts of the documentary when the composer Stewart Wallace and Ms. Tan went to China to immerse themselves in that culture. The images of China were spectacular and I really felt as if they captured the essence of the country in just a few minutes of film.
Check out this trailer to get an idea of how wonderful this documentary is:
Bonesetter Documentary PRESS CLIP from Outlier Films on Vimeo.
The documentary JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER will air this Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can check local listings here. Like many of Amy Tan's novels, THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER explores family relationships and especially ones between mothers and daughters; so it's highly appropriate that this documentary is first airing on Mother's Day! I thoroughly enjoyed JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER and I highly recommend watching it (or at least Tivoing it!) It's a don't miss show!
Thanks to CaraMar Publicity for providing a review copy of this documentary.