When it comes to family, loving each other can be the easiest and hardest thing to do. On top of honoring family traditions, prioritizing responsibilities, and staying true to one’s own aspirations, life can get all the more complicated at any moment. But what’s a family without a little drama? In the new film, The Harvest, an estranged son of a Hmong American family returns home, raising the more important question of whether we endure it because we want to or because we feel we have to. While the film gives no definitive answer, it suggests that perhaps there doesn’t need to be.
Doua Moua, who wrote, produced and stars in The Harvest, has certainly been on the up and up in the last few years after playing Po in Disney’s live-action Mulan. Though Asian American representation in the entertainment industry is growing, it’s slow-moving, and few films highlight stories of and by specific minority groups like the Hmong community. When Moua landed his breakout role in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino, it was the first Hollywood movie to feature a predominately Hmong American cast and crew. Given that so few mainstream Hmong-centered movies can easily come to mind after fifteen years, it’s a telling sign that it’s time for new stories to emerge—including Moua’s.
In The Harvest, Moua plays Thai, an early thirty-something who’s moved away from his family and close-knit Hmong community for a fresh start in San Francisco, far from the burdens of overwhelming rules and traditions. But when his father gets in a car accident and starts suffering from kidney failure, Thai must come home to support his mother, Youa (Dawn Ying Yuen), and younger sister, Sue (Chrisna Chhor), with the medical bills and hospital visits while keeping the crumbling household in one piece. However, his father, Cher (Perry Yung), is not making things easy for anyone, let alone himself.
Yung delivers a standout performance as Thai’s strict and stubborn father. Cher refuses to take his medicine, won’t obey doctors’ orders, and doesn’t care to listen to anyone who disagrees with him. Cher is steadfast in his old-fashioned ways, so anyone’s best bet in getting his attention is speaking his language—figuratively and literally. The Harvest is mostly in English, but when a character speaks Hmong, everyone’s ears perk up as if those words would be the most important ones they’d hear.
Though the dialogue propels a good bit of the message, just as much is said through facial expressions alone. For Yung and Moua especially, their furrowed brows and deep, hardened stares evoke Cher and Thai’s mirrored feelings of frustration, uncertainty, and a yearning for all their problems to miraculously fix themselves. Like father, like son, it takes time (and a fishing trip or two) for them to see where each other is coming from in their disagreements.
It’s saddening to watch someone try to help another person who doesn’t want their support, but The Harvest reminds viewers you can’t always expect to get through to anyone who isn’t willing to be open.
The same could be said for more than the ailing father. As it turns out, nearly every character in the film has their moment of reluctance to open up beyond casual dinner table talk. But these moments are not to be taken for granted. While the film primarily explores the tricky father-son relationship, director Caylee So is sure to explore the layered roles of women in the family dynamic. As a Southeast Asian American mom and daughter herself, So expertly captures the nuances of the doting mother and adventurous teenage daughter, who both also struggle with their culture’s customs.
Everyone in The Harvest harbors secrets that eventually come spilling out at once in a shocking climactic scene. Some of the reveals can be anticipated more easily than others, but at least one will be well worth a jaw-dropping reaction. As the film goes on, subtle hints continuously trickle out, but it’s effective in that any outcome is still possible, allowing audiences to make predictions without guessing the ending right away.
Aside from two brief party scenes, The Harvest is a fairly quiet film that drags and drops music in between scenes when needed. Roman Molino Dunn’s meditative film score melds a warm, warbly electronic synth with orchestral strings and a distant, folkish traditional instrument, excellently relaying a sense of both comfort and disconnect between intergenerational relationships. Perhaps the movie’s best use of the score was during the wedding festivities; if caught at the right moment, the melody of Pachelbel’s Canon in D could be placed right on top of Dunn’s instrumental with no issue.
Weddings and romantic relationships are important themes in The Harvest, as it’s made clear several times that one shouldn’t compromise love to appease their family or community just because others have done it in the past. But for that to happen, sacrifices must be made, and someone must become the bigger person.
As Thai comes to terms with this, you can’t help but feel proud of him for making decisions, not just for his own peace of mind but for his family’s. There is plenty to love about The Harvest in all its heartbreaking and heartwarming glory, but in the end, what matters most is not whether we do things out of choice or obligation but the fact that we care enough to try.