LAAPFF Review: ‘Seadrift’ (2019), dir. Tim Tsai
May 19, 2019
Too much water.
There’s much to be said about the period of time following the Vietnam War and the circumstances surrounding the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to the United States. After being thrown into a foreign country and dealing with all the struggles that came with readjustment, the next step for most was to deal with the local people–most of whom were none too thrilled that they had new neighbors practically overnight. As it turns out, getting both groups of people to get along doesn’t quite happen instantaneously. It’s the most extreme cases of distrust and suspicion, like the events that transpired in Seadrift, Texas back in 1979, that are the stories that need to be remembered most. However, Tim Tsai’s waterlogged first documentary feature film Seadrift doesn’t do that story justice.
Seadrift tells the story of the small seaside town of Seadrift, Texas and the residents’ strong reactions toward the influx of Vietnamese refugees who were forced to relocate there at the end of the Vietnam War. As is the case with most tales of Asian immigrants “invading” small, mostly-white towns throughout the United States, the citizens there were initially hostile towards their new neighbors. Through the film’s interviews, we see the general distrust and miscommunication between the two groups happen in real time. Seadrift Resident One wrongfully believes that the Vietnamese were given heaps of government assistance for their relocation (they weren’t), while Resident Two staunchly believes that the Vietnamese were out to sabotage their profits. Vietnamese shrimpers retaliate with their own theories–that the white residents of Seadrift were secretly destroying their traps in the middle of the night. Tensions rise until they reach their breaking point–a white shrimper gets shot and killed by a Vietnamese shrimper. What happens afterwards in that small town (note: the KKK plays a part in it) is where the true focus of the film lies.
While Tsai’s choice in subject matter is an interesting microcosm of the United States’ xenophobic views after the end of the Vietnam War, the film as a whole is poorly mismanaged. Bogged down by deadpan interviews, repetitive statements from its subjects and awkward pacing throughout, Seadrift unfortunately leaves much more to be desired. Even though the film itself is only a meager 68 minutes, watching it felt like an eternity.
Take, for instance, some of the people that are interviewed throughout the film. Most are crabbers that lived through the shooting and remember the event clearly. There’s no shortage of them–there were probably about seven to eight Seadrift residents that weighed in on rotation (another particular factoid to note is that there were only 2-3 Vietnamese immigrants being interviewed in comparison). However, although we get to hear different accounts of the same events, none of the interviewees offered much additional insight into their version of the events as they happened. The same story is repeated by these interviewees every time–same story, slightly different words. What results is a painfully boring feedback loop. For minutes at a time, the story stalls and refuses to move forward. Although the film’s repetition is indicative of a largely consensual account of what transpired throughout those tension-filled years, the same effect could have been achieved by cutting some of the random interviews out.
Another glaringly problematic feature of Seadrift is its incessant use of B-roll. As the film chugs along, you’ll start to notice that Tsai is very, very fond of his boating shots that have nothing to do with what is going on. While an interviewee is recalling their experience about how much they disliked their new Vietnamese neighbors, Tsai often cuts straight to footage of the ocean and people capturing crabs. In fact, it becomes the film’s default go-to. As someone recounts how their father tragically passed away, Tsai decides to show some footage of crabbers on their boat. While a refugee thoughtfully describes how hard it is to assimilate into American culture, the film suddenly cuts to a random shot of the ocean to pad the runtime. Perhaps the film could do better than to cut away from each interviewee right as they begin speaking. What people take away from the film is not the much-deserved images of the people who experienced and lived it–rather, the images of random boats, water, and seagulls largely distracts and muddles the entire point of the story.
While there are some moments where Tsai uses stormy skies and turbulent oceans to try to build tension, they’re ultimately ineffective due to how overused they are. Seadrift starts to feel like a film about crabbing and boating instead of a tipping point in Asian American history. That’s not to mention the foreboding, dull soundtrack that feels like it is caught in that same loop that the story is stuck in. For about 75 percent of the film, those same depressing strings signal a sense of impending doom that never fully materializes, making the film even more of a slog than it already is.
But even with all of its faults and missteps, Seadrift does manage to find some sort of redemption at its end that merits its existence. Call it a twist ending, but Seadrift genuinely manages to surprise you in the way that everything gets resolved. It’s a film that strongly relies on its timeliness, especially in the wake of extremist events that so prominently hangs in the modern fear-mongering media. Despite all of its flaws, what Seadrift does get right is getting released at this moment in time. History is cyclical, and Seadrift seems to be a reminder that if we could get through these horrors in the past, we can definitely do so again.
But then again, it should not have taken what feels like an eternity (again, 68 minutes) to get there.