By Chandrasekaran Shreya (24S06A)
This story is the first of a 3-part series focusing on films featured during the Family Film Festival, which focused on family-centered themes and stories.
“I have watched this on the big screen, in the cinema—not on any streaming platform, but in the cinema—19 times before today. And I am not embarrassed to tell you that I have cried every single time.”Mr Kenneth Tan, Chairman of Singapore Film Society
“I didn’t cry,” a child, her tear-stained lashes glinting in the theatre’s dim lights, emphatically proclaims. A wave of chuckles ripples through the audience members–some wiping at their eyes, others pocketing wet, tear-stained tissues.
Seamlessly transitioning between tongue-in-cheek banter and heartfelt meditations on family was The Kid from the Big Apple, one of two closing films screened at Singapore’s first Family Film Festival.
As her high-flying, fashion-designer mother–Sophia–temporarily moves to Chongqing, China for work, Sarah–a twelve-year-old Malaysian kid, born and raised in New York City–finds herself confronting her roots, alone, in her mother’s childhood home.
Unresolved pasts, unfamiliar presents, uncertain futures: each character’s faced with a messy, tangled web of questions to grapple with, leaving their hearts and minds restless.
However, with time, distance, and gradual concerted efforts to empathise, we see these characters–initially meeting new spaces and new people with hostile reluctance–gradually letting their guards down to embrace new conceptions of home.
Modernity, Tradition, and Familial Fissures
“Oh my God! You are eating chicken feet! So disgusting!”Sarah, letting out a sharp shriek of disgust upon seeing Grandpa eating, well, chicken feet.
Right from the beginning, Sarah and Grandpa’s relationship is tense.
The former: a young kid from NYC, phone glued to her hand, heavily acclimatised to the city’s urban lifestyle. The latter: an archetype of older generations, disapproving of the youth’s callous disregard for elders, vaguely displeased by commercialisation (though, notably, he will make an exception for the occasional McDonald’s black coffee).
With the two main characters being fundamentally shaped by polar cultural forces, each from vastly different times, immediate fissures in their relationship surface. Both are averse to each other’s way of life.
What’s more, they (seemingly) can’t even understand each other. Both are simply talking to walls: Sarah’s emphatic, angered English is met with Grandpa’s equally-frustrated Mandarin. Any attempts to placate or understand each other fail from the get-go.
Gradually, though, these attempts are met with varying degrees of success. Grandpa brings over a young, larger-than-life neighbour, Ah Bao, to act as a translator (as he awkwardly–and endearingly–navigates their hostility, deliberately mistranslating Sarah’s off-hand “bulls**t” to appease Grandpa).
And Sarah can, in fact, understand and speak Mandarin fluently–she simply chose not to. It’s what makes the exact moment she first speaks in Mandarin especially significant: she, of her own volition, chooses to bridge the chasms between herself and the people around her.
In heartwarming exchanges, we see the thawing of their relationship as it blossoms into a heartfelt, banter-filled one. Each takes active steps to learn about, understand and practise the other’s lifestyle: Grandpa, in buying a phone and secretly learning to use technology; Sarah, in preparing a traditional Malaysian breakfast and befriending the neighbourhood kids.
Towards the film’s end, in the quiet of the night, an intimate sequence unfolds. Grandpa’s continual, failed attempts to send a mere emoji sends Sarah into a fit, but it is a bittersweet one. Her exasperation eventually gives way to tired, panic-stricken sobs, revealing the actual–perhaps unexpected–reason why she’s upset, “What if something happens to you? If you fall, or when you’re sick?”
The roots of her anger are anchored deep in love and concern. She’s worried that, when she leaves, Grandpa won’t be able to communicate with her, especially given his ailing health and need for a caretaker–be it close by, or far away. More than that, though, she doesn’t want to leave.
She sobs in his arms, lamenting the short time they have together before an inevitable parting. It’s this thought–what comes after she leaves, what might become of their relationship–that’s been plaguing her. A longing for more, beyond the time they have now, arises.
In the balcony’s faint night lights, we’re privy to just two close-ups: Sarah, sobbing and clutching at her Grandpa’s chequered shirt, finding comfort in the slope of his shoulder. Grandpa, quiet and solemn, holding her close.
Here, their relationship comes full-circle. A cultural disjuncture no longer breeds anger, instead leaving love-anchored, twin pangs in their hearts. In one of the film’s rare moments of honest, direct vulnerability between characters, we see–explicitly, for the first time–their newfound love for each other: clumsy, unintentionally cutting, but earnest in expression.
It is a quiet sort of heartbreak, seeing the two clutch at straws to, somehow, remain a familiar presence in each other’s lives.
Years earlier, back in NYC, a young, bright-eyed Sarah is held close by her mother under a night sky. “Look at the stars. They are like Grandpa and Grandma. Not always seen, but forever there,” she says. At the time, the quote’s gravity was perhaps not fully realised by Sarah, who’d never met her grandparents to begin with.
But now, years later, as she and Grandpa share a heart-to-heart on a bridge, she can still recall the quote from memory. It carves out a space for itself in her heart, with these shared moments of warmth breathing a new life into it.
Burdens of Love
Note: Here, Grandpa is also referred to as Sophia’s father.
The scene’s composition is brutal. Against a washed-out palette, the lone, colourful cradle in the foreground stands out, swaying to the lilt of the wind. Sarah: a baby, out of frame, cries in her cradle. Sophia: a single mother, in frame, holds back tears as she comforts Sarah. And her father, out of frame, is far from Sophia’s reach–both physically and emotionally.
While Sarah and Grandpa’s relationship evidently mends over time, Sophia and Grandpa’s–her father’s–fails to see itself to a complete resolution.
In flashbacks, we see a singular (and, perhaps, the film’s heaviest) scene encapsulating their early relationship. It unfolds in the cramped confines of their home, lights dim and a hollow, greying yellow.
The year is 2004, and they are at each other’s throats. Sophia wishes to leave for NYC to seemingly pursue her studies, concealing from her father the truth he already knows: she’s a young, single, expecting mother.
And almost immediately–in Sarah’s stunned silence, in her father’s brief, nervous stutter–the complexities of this father-daughter relationship unfold: the immediate forces of betrayal and impassioned ire; the long-harboured ones of mounting tensions in the undercurrents, always flitting between dormancy and being on the cusp of boiling over.
Sophia’s decision to leave, seemingly made in the heat of the moment, is instead the culmination of quiet, decade-old grievances. Her departure leaves her father with a heavy, heavy heart–the same one she brings with her to NYC.
Despite this sour parting, neither can let go of the other, or bury their relationship in their past. Sophia reminds Sarah of her grandparents’ presence though neither are present in their lives. And on her father’s shelf sits a bottle of twelve-year-old traditional medicine, one he intended to leave with Sophia after a visit to NYC, but in a heartbreaking turn of events, failed to do so.
Distance, really, only makes their hearts grow fonder. They both long for the same things: to reconcile, to make amends, to pick up from where they’d left off. But when they finally meet in person after twelve long years, there’s no slow-motion shot of them running into each other’s arms. No tears, no apologies, no declarations of love.
Instead, they’re back in that small room in 2004, the aftermath of that fateful fight: her gaze is downturned, posture stiff, words few and sparse; he’s quiet, sombre, exasperated at her silence.
Old wounds have left, in their wake, a certain walking-on-eggshells unsurety to their interactions now. Between them lie years–of presents lived apart, and of pasts remaining unresolved. Where do they even begin?
Hearts, mending over distance and time
Note: Here, Grandpa is also referred to as Sophia’s father.
Sophia and her father appear in the same frame only thrice: one, when she first arrives; second, during their fight, years earlier; third, when they meet again, years later. Their lives–lived apart–are distinct and separate. Convergences in their paths only arise out of necessity.
Despite this, love ebbs and flows between them, even dating back to their fight. Sophia doesn’t want her father to “lose face” given the taboo circumstances she finds herself in, and believes that hiding away will do him better in their hometown.
It is a bitter pill to swallow, believing that one’s absence will be of service to the other–but it’s one she nonetheless gulps down to absolve her father of any shame from outsiders.
This, however, is the least of her father’s concerns. It doesn’t matter that having an unmarried, young mother for a daughter will tarnish his reputation. All they really have–all they’ve ever had–is each other. And that’s enough for him to want, above all else, to stay by her side, to ease the burdens of single parenting.
But it comes out all wrong–too harsh, razor-sharp, searing the heart instead of offering relief.
And that, perhaps, is the burden of their love: to love is to risk hurt–directed at oneself, and directed at loved ones.
Gradually–and in spite of their few interactions–we see their relationship heal. Repressed feelings and grievances are aired: all through Sarah, whom they both communicate with.
In Sophia’s father’s recollections of his past with Sophia–interspersed throughout the film–it is evident that he has ruminated much over their relationship. He is apologetic towards Sophia, openly admitting to his shortcomings as a father. Where he’d once insulted her ambitions, she is now a source of pride for him.
The thought of Sophia, a young girl alone in a foreign city, embroiled in trying circumstances, does not lead to bitter quips of, “Serves her right,” but instead brings him grief. And he grieves: his absence in their lives, the years they could’ve spent together, the three-piece family they could’ve been.
Sophia, too, grieves. Texts from Sarah about her father evoke vivid memories of the past: an abusive relationship she’d endured alone, failed attempts to reconnect with her father, the tearful admittances of having missed him.
These moments of vulnerability–the simultaneous burdens of love, regret and guilt they carry–are never directly conveyed to the other. It’s painful to watch, knowing that they clearly wish to make amends, but can’t bring themselves to take the first step.
This, I suppose, is exactly what love is. When we cherish someone so deeply, we find ourselves in a sort of relationship where, with every word and action, there’s much at stake. There’s much to risk: to gain, but also to lose.
And it’s that latter half that makes communication all the more difficult, no matter how pivotal it is, in Sophia and her father’s case, to mend broken ties.
The aforementioned, however, make the film’s final moments all the more momentous.
A series of misunderstandings leads Sophia into believing her father has died just as she returns home, and Grandpa into believing Sophia’s been harmed by an earthquake in Chongqing. It is at that exact moment that twin flames of immense longing are elicited in both, leading to a tearful, heavy reconciliation between the two.
Later, as they find themselves in the same room they’d fought in years ago, apologies–brief but heavy–finally spill.
“Pa, I’m sorry.”
Lips tight, he repeats, “I’m sorry,” carrying a tone of finality.
The still-unresolved baggage of the past hangs heavy in the air; years of hurt do not simply vanish with time apart and a mere desire to reconcile. But in this moment, they make one thing clear to each other, the only thing that really matters: no matter what happens moving forward, it is love that will guide their actions and words.
While not the film’s main focus, I find this relationship to be the most compelling. There’s no clear resolution to it, but that’s what grounds the film. It ends on a hopeful note; not overly optimistic, but enough to do their relationship’s complexities justice while relieving our hearts of a slight burden.
What binds ties, what forms families: the choice to love
“I have you and mum, you both love me very much. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have a father.”Sarah, in a heart-to-heart with Grandpa
Tying into the Festival’s exploration of unconventional families, this film illustrates–explicitly and implicitly–that families do not simply exist by virtue of two parents having biological children. They are made, found and maintained over time, their foundations lying in people who, with each passing day, choose to care, to understand, and to love one another.
And in the film’s many iterations of family, the choice to love is a binding commonality.
Sophia and Sarah
A single mother and her daughter. The absence of Sarah’s father does not make them a family that is ‘lacking’ in any way. If anything, it binds them closer together. While Sarah’s father chose to leave, Sophia chose to stay.
Given Sarah’s staunch belief that her family is complete, Sophia’s fierce devotion to Sarah is evident, her love enough to take the place of an absent father. Their love for each other is a clear pillar of strength in each of their lives, sure and steady.
Grandpa, Sarah and Sophia
A grandfather, granddaughter and her mother: a family that, despite the varying tensions between them at different points in time, loves–and grows to love–one another through it all.
We have no obligation to love the people we find ourselves biologically related to. In fact, we might not even feel inclined to love them to begin with. Living in close quarters with and seemingly expected to love one another when no one really chose to be one another’s biological family: the grounds for conflict are fertile. And this, perhaps, is exactly why love–especially in familial relationships–is a choice.
Where Grandpa decides to fly to New York City and reconnect with Sophia, where Sarah decides to open up to Grandpa and begin conversing with him in Mandarin, where Sophia chooses to hug and apologise to Grandpa: underscoring all these is a steadfast, conscious decision to love.
The film’s depiction of familial relationships’ ups and downs, and the burden of emotions that comes with traversing these, renders a realistic, grounded portrayal of biological families.
And more significantly, it lends the film’s final moments gravity, where all three find themselves flying back to New York together. Of all the choices they could’ve made, they chose to spend their years ahead together.
Sarah, Grandpa, and their neighbours
A found family: people who, living in proximity, learn to love and treat one another as family. The neighbours celebrate Chinese New Year together in Grandpa’s home, chairs tucked close against a small table, laden with hearty, homemade meals.
They fuss over one another’s new outfits, take photographs to commemorate the occasion, and catch up animatedly on one another’s lives. The dining room is permeated by this tender, electric buzz of love.
The children’s relationships, too, are a constant source of joy: they convene in their “little universe”, where their self-made slides and swings will offer them the same, shared memories of childhood to reminisce together, years later.
As the film’s final montage beautifully ties together these shared moments of carefree, youthful exuberance, we also see–interspersed throughout the montage–just how much these newfound relationships matter to them. In the wake of Chinese New Year celebrations, they mourn Sarah’s looming departure, huddled tight under the corridor’s gloomy lights.
While the film’s end sees Sarah’s return back to New York City with her biological family members, this isn’t to say that found families–given their impermanence, in this case–are any less significant. Neither do they solely serve as a ‘replacement’ for one’s biological family when the latter is absent. These families and relationships, transient or not, are just as valuable.
“If there is a next life, I hope you can promise to give me a chance to be your father again. Can you? I promise you that I’ll give you all the joy and harmony. […] Forgive me, please. I love you and Sarah. Forever and ever.”A rousing, rare show of vulnerability, in Grandpa’s final video to Sophia.
With its intentional screenplay, well-developed characters and intricate relationships, The Kid from the Big Apple is, through and through, a heartfelt film that reminds us of our own families. Love is both a burden and source of lightness for the heart, simply because we’ve invested a part of ourselves into these relationships; the people we love carry a part of our hearts–our lives–with them.
So it goes: relationships are complex, non-linear, bound to waver in continuity. But, as the film’s characters remind us, we choose to love these people, to handle one another’s hearts with gentle hands, to carve out shared histories together. And so we can choose, too, to tide through trying times together and let love, in spite–and because–of it all, triumph.