By Heidi Lee
CW: This article contains mentions of sexual violence and trauma.
During 2005, the summer after her third year in film studies at Ryerson, Tiffany Hsiung embarked on a search for her biological grandparents. Armed with a camera, several pieces of film equipment and two friends, she hopped on a plane to Taipei.
Hsiung, now an award-winning filmmaker, said no one really thought she would be able to find her grandparents based on an address on an old piece of paper and a few old photos. “It became a more complex journey than we would have imagined when we first started the trip,” she said.
The project she set out to shoot in Taipei also goes far beyond a third-year film project. Combining footage across a span of 14 years, Sing Me a Lullaby is a personal story about familial healing and reunion. It recently won the inaugural Toronto International Film Festival Share Her Journey Short Cuts Award.
Growing up, Hsiung’s mother would sing her to sleep with gentle lullabies. Since her mother was adopted into her family, she would always remind Hsiung how lucky she was to have someone to do this for her. When Hsiung went to Taiwan for the first time, she would ask people she encountered to sing lullabies in front of the camera—so she could bring these beautiful melodies back home to her mother.
“Sing Me a Lullaby has different meanings, as if my mom is asking someone to sing her a lullaby,” said Hsiung. “Lullabies are stories passed on from traditions, generations and cultures. No matter where you are in the world, you carry a bit of your roots that you come from.”
“Our trauma and our pain can be projected in so many different ways, but it doesn’t mean one loves you less, it just means that’s all of who they are”
Although Hsiung always knew she had to finish the film, she avoided it for many years. Family issues are challenging to talk about, especially when every bit of detail and emotions were captured through her lens, said Hsiung.
It also took Hsiung a long time to finally go through all the old footage; not only is it embarrassing to see her young self on screen, but it was also an extremely difficult film to work on, she said.
Instead, Hsiung moved on to other projects. During the making of her debut feature The Apology, she spent four or five years interviewing three women, Gil Won-Ok, Cao Hei Mao and Adela Reyes Barroquillo—all of whom were formerly forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War.
The Apology focuses on the lives of the three women and how they handled trauma—Gil advocated for justice, while Cao and Barroquillo struggled to tell their families the truth. The film won a Peabody Award in 2018, along with the DuPont Columbia Award and the Allan King Memorial Award.
One of the three survivors, Cao adopted her daughter because Cao wasn’t able to give birth to a child after she was raped. However, Cao never shared her painful past with her daughter. Hsiung resonates with Cao’s story—it reminded her of her mother and her adoptive grandmother.
“If I didn’t start looking for my mom’s biological parents, I don’t think I would have made The Apology. And if I didn’t make The Apology, I couldn’t have finished Sing Me a Lullaby,” said Hsiung.
After the release of The Apology in 2016, Hsiung circled back to where everything started— revisiting old footage and even documenting a trip to Taiwan with her mother during the Chinese New Year.
Barroquillo, whom Hsiung addressed as Lola Adela, was admitted to a hospital in the Philippines and asked Hsiung to be present during her last moments. On her way to the airport, Hsiung received a call from her mother saying that her grandma would soon pass away. Hsiung made a tough decision to go to Taiwan instead, in what was “the hardest moment in both films.”
“The Apology is still very personal because these are the personal relationships that I have with these women,” said Hsiung. “I think I still hold the responsibility of documenting the grandmothers as I do with my mother. “
“I look at the people that give me the permission and the opportunity to film their stories…also making sure that I take in regards what would serve and support the stories they want to tell.”
Sing Me a Lullaby is still Hsiung’s story, but “intertwined with the legacies of [her] grandmothers and mother.” She chose not to show footage of her grandfather because his story would have a deep impact on her family.
“I think of that as a reminder to us all that certain things in our lives happened for a reason, and at that time period is necessary”
When making a personal film like that, Hsiung said filmmakers should ask themselves what they are ready to share with their audience.
“Knowing what you are going to share, are you ok with that being out there for the rest of your existence?”
For Hsiung, the best part of making the documentary is having the chance to capture the legacy of the women in her life. She even received messages from her audience saying that the film “helps them unravel their family complexity” and inspires them to share it with their children.
“That makes me proud as a filmmaker,” she said. “You’ve created something from the strength, suffering, as well as the resilience of the women in your life and how [their stories] are making an impact in other people’s lives.”
Filmmaking has made it easier for Hsiung to have conversations with her family—hard conversations to have at the dinner table or on any regular day. A camera has given them a purpose to be vulnerable and talk about their feelings.
According to an article about the trauma and wellbeing of Asian American women from the psychology journal Women & Therapy, trauma experienced by an individual would also affect their families and communities and across generations.
However, it added that “consequences of trauma are not always negative, as they may include both negative and positive effects, such as post-traumatic growth and thriving that have been observed across individuals, families and communities with histories of trauma.”
Through this project, Hsiung has gotten closer to her mother. She said she gets to understand more of why her mother is the way she is, and also why Hsiung is the way that she is.
“Our trauma and our pain can be projected in so many different ways, but it doesn’t mean one loves you less, it just means that’s all of who they are,” said Hsiung. “I think Sing Me a Lullaby allows us to grasp this question about our parents, about our relationship with people, that it isn’t one-dimensional.”
“There are things that have occurred right before your existence and it’s not because of you…and that’s ok.”
At the end of the day, Hsiung said a lot of credit needs to be given to “21-year-old Tiffany,” because her younger self was able to just jump on a plane and “not have too much thought of the potential problems that could arrive.”
“I think of that as a reminder to us all that certain things in our lives happened for a reason and at that time period is necessary,” said Hsiung. “I am happy that I was able to do that.”
Sing Me a Lullaby had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will be screened on CBC Gem on Nov. 6 and the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival from Nov. 12 to 19.