Ahma and Alan

By James Y. Shih | Drama
A young man is thrown in jail in Taiwan. Now his rural grandma must bail him out.

Alan is an American-born grandson teaching in Taipei. But when it's discovered he's teaching illegally, he's thrown into jail. Now he awaits deportation and deals with the mockery and shame from the vindictive police officers who jailed him.

His only hope is his Taiwanese grandma -- his "ahma" -- who must travel from a rural town to Taipei to rescue her grandson. The journey and wait force both grandmother and grandson to reflect on their relationship, though their bond offers the only hope for Alan to remain with his grandmother in Taiwan.

Written and directed by James Y. Shih, this perceptive short drama explores the identity issues that Asian Americans face, who often don't quite belong to Asia or America. But it's also a universal story about unconditional family love, and how it forms a bond that transcends age, generations and language.

The film is shot in an observational, almost documentary style, one that holds long and often wider shots as action and characters come in and out of the frame. The style requires some patience, but it's rewarded by a strong sense of place and character that feels lived-in and authentic.

We see Alan, played by actor Gregory Yuan, flustered with the language barrier and grasping the contempt of the police officers who throw him into custody, disdainful as they are of American-born Taiwanese. The storytelling takes particular care to chart Alan's evolution with language, from the shame he felt speaking Taiwanese (Hokkien) and Mandarin as a child in his ahma's care to his loss of those languages as an adult, which has major ramifications on his current situation.

We also witness the charm and fortitude of his ahma, played by actor Mei-Hou Wu. Small and seemingly fragile, she reveals great strength and intrepid endurance as she makes the journey to Taipei. Watching her take on the police when she finally arrives is both joyful and inspiring, as well as a testament to fierce family love and loyalty.

In the end, "Ahma and Alan" rewards viewers with an immersion into Taiwan and its foundational touchstones of family and culture. It also offers insight into the unique generational gaps that open up with globalization and immigration, particularly around language, which affects their relationships. Alan and his ahma often found those differences opening up a chasm between the young boy and the hopeful, doting grandmother. But in the end, they find a bridge, and perhaps a deeper appreciation for the love that was always there between them.

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