An undocumented Filipino teenager who sings old-style country music–how does it get any more American than that?
What does it mean to be an American in this day and age? It wasn’t until recently that the answer to that once-simple question became more and more obscured–and more impossible to answer than ever. With everything that’s happening regarding the uneven politics of the United States, it’s hard to come to terms with what being a true American means.
Diane Paragas offers her interpretation of who the diverse inhabitants of the land of the free are in her heartwarming, thrilling debut film Yellow Rose. Anchored around movie star in-the-making Eva Noblezada (she’s already conquered the stage with her two Tony Award nominations), Yellow Rose is at once an uplifting and triumphant debut for both first time feature film director Paragas and first time film actress Noblezada.
Unlike many teens of the Gen Z era, Rose (Eva Noblezada) is a young Filipino girl with the unique dream of becoming a country star. Together with her undocumented mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), the two of them live in a shabby hotel where her mother works as a maid. Although Rose’s life is far from glamorous, it’s filled with love. But things take an unexpected turn for the worse when their life is interrupted by an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid, resulting in Rose’s mother getting brutally taken away as a result. Now completely alone, Rose has to figure out what to do on her own. Where will she go now that she doesn’t have a home to go back to?
Luckily for Rose, she’s surrounded by friends who are more than willing to offer her a helping hand. She finds a kindred heart in her Filipino American aunt (Lea Salonga), her friend Elliot (Liam Booth), local dive bar owner (Libby Villari), and a famous country singer (Dale Watson). Through these unconventional friendships, Rose discovers that she is never far away from a friendly face. However, none of these living arrangements stick, forcing her to hop from place to place like a vagabond. She’s never again able to have a stable home in the United States–ICE has made sure of that. As the days count down before her mother gets deported back to Manila, Rose has a tough choice to make–move back to Manila with her mother or go live with her hesitant aunt, whose family doesn’t want her there. For Rose, there’s no clear path to take. Either way, her dream to become a country singer dies along with it.
While most teenagers would just choose to stick it out with an aunt who doesn’t want her around, Rose belongs to a different class of Americans–ones who refuse to give up on their dreams. Unusually strong-willed, stubborn, and free-spirited, Rose is a vibrant and realistic depiction of a teenager who feels as if she knows better than the adults that surrounds her. Noblezada fully embodies everything about the character, from Rose’s temper tantrums to her melancholic teenage angst. Although it’s easy to chide Rose’s questionable actions, Paragas finds a balance between making Rose a sympathetic and an inexperienced character. Dreams, after all, are king. With how quickly Noblezada becomes Rose, it’s hard to believe that she hasn’t done this on film before.
The same could be said about the rest of Yellow Rose‘s eclectic ensemble. Punzalan’s chemistry with Noblezada is palpable and touching, while the rest of the actors slip quite comfortably into their roles as friendly Austinites. One interesting detail to point out is that nearly all the people that choose to help Rose out are all white Americans. Despite what people might think about the infamously conservative Texas, Paragas offers a more balanced view of the state and political diversity in its inhabitants. Similarly, although the film itself relies on a controversial immigration legislation, Paragas manages to paint ICE in a largely neutral light. It would’ve been so easy to turn the already-hated ICE into the lazy caricatures of heartless, nameless boogeymen, but even these characters are given some sort of depth. Each character, it seems, is given their fair share of thought.
But of course, perhaps the most memorable aspect of Yellow Rose (aside from its gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of cinematographer August Thurmer) is its old-country style music. In the vein of classic country singers like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson, the soundtrack for Yellow Rose was largely composed by old-country style touter Dale Watson. It’s through Watson’s music that we, like Rose, fall in love with a dying breed of country music, and perhaps the most “American” style of music to emerge from the South. Juxtaposed next to Rose and her mother’s heartfelt rendition of Tagalog-language song “Because of You” (a leitmotif that repeats throughout the film’s journey), both song genres reflect the wide range of cultural institutions that make up the mosaic landscape of America, including Filipino Americans into the conversation. Is it safe to say that Yellow Rose is the one of the strongest depictions of the convergence of the two cultures I’ve seen? It’s a film that embodies that much-debated liminal space–never truly American or truly Filipino, but fully Filipino American.
Yellow Rose is thus not just another film about an American immigrant working their way up from rags to riches. Rose embodies everything I love about being an American citizen despite being undocumented: following your unconventional dreams, creating friendships that transcend racial boundaries, and taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities that America has to offer–in one way or another.
After all, isn’t that what being an American is all about?
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Follow the film on Twitter: @YellowRoseFilm
Yellow Rose was screened as part of the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF).
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.