Short Film Review: One Cambodian Family Please for my Pleasure.
An ungainly title doesn’t detract from a simply presented and heartfelt story about the immigrant experience.
I decided to fire up another short film from TNT and Refinery 29’s Shatterbox anthology. I was impressed with Yara Shahidi’s debut film, X, and wanted to see more from the female-led film project. After this crappy week, women could use a win. I went back to the second film in this season’s collection, One Cambodian Family Please for my Pleasure. This wry and tender tale about a survivor of the political purge in Czechoslovakia who sponsors a family of Cambodian refugees suffering a similar fate hit me right in the feels. It is presented simply and warmly, using humor and charm to present a nuanced look at the immigrant experience in America.
One Cambodian Family Please for my Pleasure (Shatterbox, 2018).
Hanka writes a letter to a refugee resettlement program, looking to sponsor a family from Cambodia. The violence and political upheaval there closely resembles the life she fled in Czechoslovakia. As she makes her case, she cheerfully recounts her own experiences as a transplant into the very homogeneous community of Fargo, North Dakota. She also ruminates on the lonliness and displacement she feels. Eventually, she gets her wish as the new family is cleared to resettle in the US.
A Gift to be Simple.
The structure of this short film is straightforward: Hanka (Emily Mortimer) narrates he letter in broken English. She begins by making her case for how pleasant Fargo is, despite many humorous indications otherwise. She then moves into describing her own journey, and the way it has shaped and changed her view of life. Sadness and tragedy creep in subtly; despite her cheer her life has been not been easy. She then wraps up with a moving summary of how her new home, both Fargo in particular and America is general, has informed her willful optimism.
Hanka appears a simplistic character, and her story fairly well documented in other accounts of immigrants in America. Director A.M. Luka (who bases the film on the real life experience of her mother) uses the familiar and humorous narration to smuggle in deeper sentiments of loss, longing, loneliness and resilience. There’s quite a bit of subtext hiding in plain sight, and the wholesomeness of Hanka’s delivery provides the cover to address these issues.
Hanka’s story is both familiar and foreign. She provides a lens to view immigration in light of a “model” immigrant – one who loves the US and its purported ideals, and who has assimilated into the American Dream in nearly every way possible. Despite embracing her new home with such gusto, her perspective remains different. Her malapropisms and odd phrasing is used to shift the narrative; the juxtaposition of how she describes things and how we see them actually unfolding is both humorous and subversive. If even an ardent believer like Hanka experiences dissonance between what her life as a citizen is and what it could be, how much more so does America as a country mistake the ideal for the real?
Mush like X, One Cambodian Family Please for my Pleasure trades in subtlety and mixed messages. While X’s main character was a cypher on purpose, I felt that the main character here was just a touch too stereotypical. Emily Mortimer doesn’t quite inhabit the character, leaving Hanka to feel like a archetype instead of a fully developed person. There are some fine moments when we see the façade of the happy immigrant slip, and Mortimer is adept at letting her expression convey conflicting emotions.
Perhaps it was a stylistic choice, as building stereotypes just to subvert them appears to be the intent of the piece. Many of the humorous moments in the early part of the film are a bit hackneyed, like jokes recycled from The Family Circle funny pages, or like the satirical folksiness of A Christmas Story. They did give the desired impression of good old American family values, so they are expedient…I just found them and Hanka’s persona a touch artificial.
Pay it Forward.
One Cambodian Family Please for my Pleasure is a rewarding experience, despite a few reservations about style. It satirizes American idealism and expectations with a deft touch, using humor and juxtaposition to make its points. There is throughout a feeling of warm affection, affection earned because of, not despite of, the dissonance between what is expected and what is realized. A.M. Luka crafts some powerful moments and infuses the piece with calculated optimism. Like Hanka, the film is well aware that the American experience does not deliver all it promises, and it is up to each of us to make good those promises in its place.