Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

In 1989, a completely unknown author named Amy Tan published a debut novel called “The Joy Luck Club,” which immediately rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for a number of weeks. 

Now, more than 30 years later, Tan has become an internationally renowned author. She’s written six novels, plus two children’s books and two memoirs; she has broken barriers and paved the way for overlooked voices in a medium that desperately needs them. Like most authors, she has placed little pieces of herself and her history throughout her books. Now, in the documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir,” viewers are given a chance to see it all.

Directed by the late James Redford (“Paper Tigers”), who tragically passed away last October from cancer, “Unintended Memoir” is a brilliant addition to the world of documentary filmmaking. Redford and his team navigate Tan’s intricate life story with deft narrative skill, taking you through 68 years while feeling like no time has passed at all.

The film depicts an evolution of Tan’s complex relationship with her mother — how a troubled childhood filled with clashes later led to a period of reconciliation, buoyed by a renewed understanding of her mother’s trauma. From there, the documentary seamlessly transitions into Tan’s writing and into the complexities of her celebrity.

Following the success of “The Joy Luck Club” in 1989, Tan found herself in an unexpected position, both as an author who was expected to keep up her mass-market success and as an Asian American role model, expected to be a spokesperson for the entire Asian American community. As Tan’s career unfolds onscreen, the audience is taken on a journey of persistence, joy, pressure and emotional turmoil.

In the most recent chapter of her career, Tan published a memoir titled “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” in 2017. This book is the titular “unintended memoir” — what was initially going to be about writing in general turned into a deeply emotional dive into her own experiences, what Tan calls “the most eviscerating book I’ve ever written” in the film. 

As an expert touch to the documentary’s structure, “Unintended Memoir” includes interspersed narrations of Tan reading key moments from “Where the Past Begins,” as well as from her 2003 book of personal essays, “The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings.” The effect is emotional and powerful; after all, Tan is a writer, and her thoughts are often best expressed through careful prose.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Unintended Memoirs” is a woven collection of mediums that build off of each other and further the story in their own ways. Beyond the more typical use of home videos, family photographs and interviews with Tan, the film branches out into other visuals. Videos of book signings and orations demonstrate Tan’s life as a celebrity and add to the narrative arc, while excerpts from Tan’s novels and memoirs give an extra layer of poignancy to the documentary. Capitalizing on the clear parallels between Tan’s life experiences and her debut novel, clips from the 1993 film adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” are used as a visual aide for some of Tan’s stories. 

Interviews with prominent writers like Isabel Allende and Kevin Kwan give additional insight into Tan’s legacy. The most innovative medium, though, is the addition of stunning, visceral animations for recreations of some of the harsher scenes in Tan’s childhood; although animated sequences are not unusual in documentaries, they give the film a unique sense of ingenuity. Together, these mediums create an artistic, beautifully balanced amalgamation of the past and the present.

When asked in the Q&A session if she knew what Redford had found most surprising about Tan, Redford’s wife Kyle reflected on the complex nature of Tan’s life story. “I think it was this idea that the deeper and deeper he got into Amy’s story it was just … how much she had survived,” she said. “A lot of it was this fascination with the layers of the survival and the resilience and the ability to overcome and still … live this very healthy and poetic life, despite all the things that she had to make sense out of.”

“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” is a masterful portrayal of a person and an intimate portrait of an artist. Tan is known for being humble despite her international success, and her likability is quickly evident on screen. But her story and her prose are what really draw you in beyond the surface. 

The film shines in its skill, with incredibly deliberate choices and attention to detail. From the entertaining moments, like the all-writers rock band Tan joined in the mid-90s, to the heartbreaking, like the tragic deaths of her brother and father six months apart from near-identical brain tumors, the film maintains an incredible sense of balance. 

For every tragedy, there is a moment of joy; for every barrier, this is a sense of hope. For Tan, this film is an opportunity to share her story, from the beginning to now. For the audience, it’s an opportunity to listen and learn from the words of a brilliant, talented woman who has survived some very difficult times. And for Redford, it’s a beautiful legacy to leave behind.

Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.