To paraphrase a classic American crime film (and TV show), there are eight million stories in My Heavenly City, and this affecting film focuses on just a few of them. Director Sen-I Yu, has made a few shorts already but this is her first feature, and in some ways this plays like three short films loosely woven together. Still, all the components are strong and aesthetically cohesive, if verging on the sentimental. Each story revolves around immigrants, most of whom are originally from Taiwan, like the director herself. They are living in New York and dealing with the loneliness, stress and anxiety caused by the city itself as well as feelings prompted either by their estrangement from their families – or, as in the last story, proximity to family who moved to the city with them.
In the first chapter, 15th Street, depressed student Mavis Fang is struggling to get over a recent breakup and complete her dissertation on immigration. In the opening scene, she gets a call from the father of a little boy she was just about to start tutoring in Mandarin, but learns that the lessons will have to be postponed for an indeterminate time.
In need of an income, Mavis gets a job translating between Mandarin and English for an agency that dispatches her to take depositions from victims of accidents and crimes as well as to social work situations. At a facility for young people, she manages to kindle rapport with a teenage boy from the People’s Republic, Xiao Jian (Ming Wu), who entered the US illegally and is likely to get sent back, and the experience changes her perspective.
The next story, Jack & Lulu, is a romantic anecdote about the titular characters, played by Keung To and Jessica Lee, who are drawn together by their mutual fascination with New York’s pop and lock hip-hop dancers. The chemistry between the leads is palpable, but the story is just a smidge too twee in places, bringing to mind not so much the kind of great cinematic love story that Eric Rohmer and others once made, as the thin plots encountered in music videos.
The last entry, Kite, is by far the strongest, possibly because it dares to get a bit dark. Married Taiwanese couple Jason (Chun-Yao Yao) and Claire (Mandy Wei) look on the surface to be a first-generation success story, with their roomy Brooklyn brownstone decorated in tasteful neutrals and a seven-year-old son, Jasper (Logan Cheng). But Jasper, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and “manic disorder”, is a violent, uncontrollable kid who beats Claire up so badly when she refuses to give him a computer game that the police are called and he’s taken into care. Via scenes in therapists’ offices we come to understand the underlying pressures on both the marriage and the parenting of Jasper, which is not made any easier by Jason’s traditionalist parents who live nearby and insist that Jasper is “spoilt”.
As with the first segment, there is a refreshing sympathy here for the hard work done by social services, who are too often portrayed as villains when they’re just trying to do the best for their clients. If these stories are ultimately tied up a little too neatly, that’s a forgivable flaw in a work that, as a whole, offers a fresh, thoughtful perspective on the multicultural life of the city at its centre.