Journey of The Bonesetter's Daughter

About the Film

Qian Yi
Credit: John Martin
Qian Yi in the role of Precious Auntie.

Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter follows the creation of the San Francisco Opera's production of The Bonesetter's Daughter, composed by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Amy Tan, on whose best-selling novel the opera is based. An ambitious, cross-cultural tour de force that brings together artists from China and the United States, the opera tells a deeply moving story about the difficult but unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters, inspired by Tan's own family history.

Tan's libretto draws heavily on the tragic suicide of her maternal grandmother, and explores the impact of the trauma on successive generations. "My grandmother was somebody who was forced into a subservient position," Tan says. "She was raped, and the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself." The film follows Tan as she travels with her half sisters to the home in China where her grandmother lived and died. As the opera production is mounted, Tan grapples with how best to capture and preserve the emotional truth of her family story in the drama unfolding on stage.

As in her earlier novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, in The Bonesetter's Daughter Tan uses elements of her own life to explore the immigrant experience and the ways in which both love and history can be lost in translation. The opera opens at a birthday party in San Francisco's Chinatown. Ruth (played by Zheng Cao), a young Chinese-American woman, has organized the celebration for her aging mother, LuLing (played by Ning Liang). But the party disintegrates when LuLing launches into a delusional tirade, an early sign of her Alzheimer's disease. LuLing's illness and the revelation that she has guarded family secrets since childhood prompt Ruth to begin a journey of discovery into her mother and grandmother's past.

The making of the opera spans two continents and artistic traditions -- classical Western opera and traditional Chinese opera. Tan's collaborators, American composer Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk), and Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng (Peony Pavilion), both bring their forcefully contemporary sensibilities to the production. The film follows Wallace as he travels to China to research its musical traditions. "I wanted to write the opera in my own voice, but to make it feel like China," Wallace says. "That was an easy thing to say; it was a harder problem to crack." Wallace integrates music written for traditional Chinese instruments into his score, but also brings some of China's best musicians to the San Francisco Opera to play alongside its Western orchestra.

Chen Shi-Zheng, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young man, brings to the staging of The Bonesetter's Daughter a blend of traditional and contemporary influences. "I don't want this to be a Chinatown parade," Chen says. "I'm very interested in a new form of opera -- a new American opera." Under his direction, Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage while abstract video projections create an ever-shifting visual backdrop for the unfolding drama.

The film captures the creative and technical challenges of mounting a new work -- one with high emotional and artistic stakes. Tan and Chen struggle to reconcile their divergent stylistic interpretations of her autobiographical story. The Chinese and Western musicians collaborate despite their vastly different musical training. Tensions rise during daily rehearsals involving hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians and backstage personnel, as changes are made until moments before the curtain rises.

About the Filmmakers

Lam and Petersen
Credit: Yan De Fei
Lam and Petersen traveling with composer Stewart Wallace to learn more about the music of the Dong minority.

Monica Lam


Monica Lam is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who has worked around the world. For the PBS series FRONTLINE/World, she followed a social entrepreneur's effort to transform the lives of poor children through music, examined whaling traditions in the North Atlantic, and covered political tensions faced by Muslims in Xinjiang, China. She has documented the lives of Yanomami Indians in the Amazon; taken her camera into sweatshops in southern China; and explored the aftermath of apartheid in the Academy Award-nominated story of a South African photographer.

David Petersen


David Petersen is an Academy Award-nominated director whose films are in the permanent collections of MoMA, the National Gallery, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which heralded his film Let the Church Say Amen as "one of the best documentaries of 2004." He has exhibited films at the Library of Congress, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Centre Georges Pompidou, and as an official selection at Sundance. He is an assistant professor in Media Culture at CUNY, Staten Island.

Fawn Ring

executive producer

Fawn Ring has created award-winning arts and performance programs in Chicago, San Francisco and western Massachusetts for three decades. She has produced opera, symphony and dance performances and documentary specials for PBS, including several for Great Performances. Her producing credits include Mozart by the Masters, with Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and the late Victor Borge; and she was executive producer for JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance, a documentary about the resurgence of tap dance in America.


A co-production of Outlier Films, LLC, the Center for Asian American Media, the Independent Television Service, and KQED, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Franklin P. and Catherine H. Johnson, The Shenson Foundation, and The Fleishhacker Foundation.

Outlier Films  CAAM  ITVS  KQED  NEA

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    Preview Trailer
    Follow the creation of the San Francisco Opera's "The Bonesetter's Daughter."
    Dalian Circus of China
    Meet acrobats from the Dalian Circus of China.
    Zheng Cao at the San Francisco Opera
    Get a backstage tour of the San Francisco Opera with mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao.
    Extended Interview: Amy Tan
    Watch extended interview excerpts with novelist Amy Tan.
    Extended Interview: Stewart Wallace
    Watch extended interview excerpts with composer Stewart Wallace.