Hmong American drama ‘Bitterroot’ forages for tranquility

A gentle family saga from the Tribeca festival weaves fears of climate change with spiritual isolation

Vera Brunner-Sung's "Bitterroot" includes scenes of foraging on lush mountainsides.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Vera Brunner-Sung's sophomore feature Bitterroot—which premiered at the Tribeca Festival in June—is an impassioned, poetic depiction of Montana's Hmong community, who participated in the film's making through on-set mentorship. While often stilted in its dialogue, the movie is deeply authentic in its rhythms, from its scenes of rural foraging on lush mountainsides, to its subtle tug-of-war between community pressures and individual hardship. At its best, it's nothing short of a consummate artistic achievement, given its use of image and sound to unearth unspoken lived realities.

Brunner-Sung, a child of Swiss and Korean immigrants, captures a sense of outsider-ship for her protagonist Lue (Wa Yang), a middle-aged divorcé who cleans university classrooms. He lives with his married sister May (Gia Vang) and their ailing mother Song (Qu Kue), a widowed refugee from Laos who raised them on her own. The family and their setting are introduced largely through action, through silent tableaus, and through languid shots of the green landscape, interspersed with flashes and radio news stories of raging forest fires. Right from the movie's opening scenes, even natural serenity feels endangered.

Lue's state of mind feels similar. He maintains a sense of quiet composure when fishing, or helping his mother sell vegetables at the farmer's market, but his demeanor is occasionally toppled by angry outbursts—usually in response to his family, or other members of his community, urging him to find a new wife as soon as possible. Until we learn more about Lue's marriage (that too, only through a handful of details), Brunner-Sung sets the scene through mood and sound, between the rumblings of the rural landscape, silences that feel sterile, and scenes of Lue performing desolate, off-key, but ultimately expressive karaoke.

A closeup of an Asian man holding a microphone to his mouth, against a red background.

Throughout "Bitterroot," Wa Yang's character Lue performs desolate, off-key, but ultimately expressive karaoke.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The plot, which meanders forward, is a mere vessel for these moments of despondency, which Brunner-Sung peppers with culturally authentic details. Sometimes, this tips the film over into territory that feels a little too verbose. Bitterroot is at its weakest during its clunky dialogue exchanges, when the words are functional at best, aimed primarily at explaining elements of Hmong (and Hmong American) culture to the audience. However, these scenes are thankfully few and far between, and the movie's unraveling of its characters' backdrops is also innate to its storytelling.

For instance, the details of Hmong spirituality are seldom (if ever) explained in words, but they feel like a distinct part of the movie's fabric. The community's religion is largely animist, and their belief in the spiritual is baked into Lue's purview, especially when he begins experiencing visions of himself observing other events and people from afar. This speaks to not only the cultural outlook with which he views the world—as a realm in which the natural and supernatural exist simultaneously—but to his fissured sense of being, as though he were living life as an out-of-body experience.

Much of the story concerns Lue finding a new job foraging for morel mushrooms in the Bitterroot Mountains, and is set in the days leading up to a Khi Tes ceremony, a celebratory act of string-tying, and an occasion for togetherness. As much as the movie over-explains some elements of its characters' lives, this intimate ritual is entirely visual and emotional in its depiction, arriving at a moment when Lue needs it most. However, en route to this gentle catharsis, Bitterroot never shies away from the realities of Hmong immigrant and first-gen experience, which it often unveils through vignettes of a vital secondary character, Eddie (April Charlo)—with whom Lue eventually crosses paths—taking care of a rich family's home, and living a life she knows she'll never be able to afford.

As thuddingly obvious as some of its dialogue can be, the film is also subtle in equal measure, especially when depicting Lue's proximity to whiteness. His sister May, for instance, is married to a white man who believes in his methods of farming more than Lue's and Song's, despite Lue being charged with taking care of Song's vegetable garden. But as much as Lue is willing to confront his own family, his exchanges with May's husband are withdrawn and passive; they feel far more in line with his moments of dissociation, as though his cultural experience in the United States were also a root cause of his unhappiness. There's only so much he can say to someone unwilling to fully see him.

An older Asian woman, with gray hair in a ponytail, and a dark pink floral top, against a windowed wall in the background.

Qu Kue as Song in "Bitterroot."

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

As Lue moves through the world with withheld aggression, Yang delivers a performance on the verge of explosion—but the actor is also tasked with never going all the way. Lue might let off a small bit of steam on occasion, but the key to Yang's performance is the way he allows emotional pressure to build from within, taking the character to intriguing places whenever he's on screen. Kue, meanwhile, is equally captivating as the aged Song, who just wants her version of fulfillment for her son, even if it suffocates him.

In centering the question of Lue's re-marriage—and his potential willingness to meet prospective brides, in the form of visiting family members of his tight-knit community—Bitterroot pushes Lue's actual pain into the margins of the screen, forcing Yang and the camera to search for it at every turn. All the while, the possibility of real and lasting damage constantly looms, between emotional damage to Lue, and physical damage to the forest and the people who surround it, via tales of raging wildfires.

Some of these stories are about local areas. Others, in Hmong-language broadcasts, are left more vague, but could also refer to ongoing forest fires in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia. Whatever the case may be, these encroaching climate concerns inject the film with a sense of nihilism, the kind that Lue is already up against in his personal life, now enhanced by news and images of a damaged world.

With these thoughts of annihilation on Lue's mind, and on the audience's mind, Bitterroot's tale of a man reeling from loneliness and heartbreak transforms through the lingering question of whether all this harm—to nature, and to Lue's spirit—can ever be undone. It often seems like it can't. However, through her depictions of fleeting, peaceful moments, and through the promise of possible happiness on the horizon when Lue finally connects with someone, Brunner-Sung creates hints of respite, like a wordless promise that things may—and optimistically, will—eventually look up. Despite Bitterroot's occasional struggles to express itself, it's one of the most uplifting movies this year.

Published on June 24, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter