The Philippines and the United States have a deep and long-spanning history – relations between the two nations recorded even before the Philippine islands became an American territory in the early 20th Century. Looking back at the films I watched growing up, the 1945 war film Back to Bataan is depressingly the only film I remember that revolves around Filipinos and Americans. Inevitably, films that examine the Filipino-American experience are even more sparse (Wikipedia lists a whole six titles under the category). Despite being the second-largest Asian-American population, the community’s place within American cinema is virtually non-existent.
But there is a yearning for these untold stories. Diane Paragas’ compassionate, fearless, and vital narrative feature debut is one of the films trailing the way. Yellow Rose chronicles a life-changing moment in seventeen-year-old Rose Garcia’s (Eva Noblezada) life. The world of the undocumented Filipina teen is rattled when her mother is detained by immigration and customs reinforcement (ICE). As she navigates her way around her new reality, her love for country music flourishes; using her struggles to hone her singing and songwriting.
The ‘deeply personal’ film, which Paragas wrote, directed and produced, has been fifteen years in the making and arrives at such a congruous moment. It is not merely an indictment of modern America, but of the growing global discourse on immigration.
The story is undeniably crafted by a filmmaker who has a first-hand understanding of the intricacies of Filipino culture; from mother-daughter duets to Filipino karaoke classic ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline, to the offering of food to departed family members on the family altar. But most importantly, Paragas understands the complex dynamic between a mother and daughter who are both bound and driven apart by the immigrant diaspora.
Before Rose’s mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), was taken away she worked at a rundown motel where she also resided with Rose (Rosario to her nanay). While the two make a great team, especially as they have had to deal with the passing of Rose’s father alone in a foreign country, the teenager’s coming-of-age in the land of the free catches up to them. While the titular character embraces her culture, she questions her mother’s ‘conservative’ parenting style. While classmates and friends enjoy the carelessness that accompanies being seventeen, many Filipino teens will allude to having to fight to go out for instances that aren’t school or church.
But unlike the typical coming-of-age tale, Rose’s ‘sheltered’ upbringing isn’t antagonised, rather, it comes across as a devoted mom’s mistranslated proclamation of her love. An aspiration for many in the Philippines is to be able to work abroad in order to provide for their family – being able to actually move your family to the said countries being the ultimate version of this aspiration. Priscilla wants to make sure Rose does not waste this opportunity, a form of ‘tough love’ many first-generation immigrants can attest.
Fuelled by teenage angst, Rose and close friend Elliot plan an escape for her to attend a Dale Watson show at honky-tonk Austin venue, The Broken Spoke. The euphoria from experiencing her first real country concert wears off quickly as they are greeted with an ICE raid at the motel. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film, Punzalan and Noblezada showcase heartbreaking performances as Elliot rightfully drives Rose away from her own detainment. As Rose screams for her Nanay, the loving mother instructs her to “get the letter” which advises her to go to the house of her tita Gail (Lea Salonga) – the first of many abodes she will momentarily call home.
While Eva Noblezada is undoubtedly the film’s star, it is Lea Salonga whom audiences may be most familiar with. Filipino mothers and daughters, as my mother and I, grew up listening to Salonga’s songs, a unique bond over OPM (Original Pilipino Music) that Rose and Priscilla also share in the film. This makes Salonga’s appearance all the more perfect. While some fans might be disappointed to find that, while a vastly important role for newly solus Rose, her role is brisk and feels more like a cameo. The true depth of Gail’s character is touched upon but is not fully elaborated – although there is an inferred complication in regards to Gail’s relationship with her husband.
What makes Yellow Rose so striking is that it does not dwell on the ICE process, rather, it positions us at the heart of a young woman’s coming of age in the midst of raging tragedy; highlighting an unwavering determination to continue living her life, fulfilling her aspirations, despite her immigration status and her mother’s impending deportation.
While a Filipino story, Yellow Rose is also unquestionably American. Not only because of its unabashed celebration of country music, but its heartfelt encapsulation of the hard work and sacrifice that bounds the American Dream; its spellbinding use of country music will definitely not be the only thing that strikes a chord with its audiences. The film is unafraid to underscore that, perhaps, at the very root of each of our unique experiences is an abundance of similarities; helping us see hope in the growing uncertainty that helms global politics.
Like the diverse mix of cultures us immigrant folks learn to incorporate in our everyday lives, Yellow Rose is a beautiful amalgamation of genres that, at first glance, would seemingly negate one another. But this Western, musical, and immigrant coming-of-age proves preconceived notions wrong as it hits all the notes perfectly. In the film’s last moments, we see Rose sporting a shiny new guitar, with a bedazzled blouse, and cowboy hat and boots to match. She croons a song dedicated to her mother, who is tearfully watching via video call – winning the hearts of audiences all over again.
by Graciela Mae
Graciela Mae is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. When she’s not watching films, she’s probably attempting to make films herself. She swears she has other hobbies. Her favourite movies include Rushmore, Cléo from 5 to 7, 20th Century Women, and Carol. You can find her on twitter: @notgracielamae