Tough packs a lot of emotional and cultural heft into a five-minute short. A conversation between British-born filmmaker Jennifer Zheng and her mother, who grew up in the Cultural Revolution in China, the film touches candidly and unflinchingly on some very difficult issues. Identity, ethnicity, language, history and family all come up, and the directness of the questions and honesty of the answers is both surprising and beautiful.

Using simple lines and a restrained palette of mostly primary colours, Zheng takes a fairly literal approach to visualizing the conversation, using animation to capture moments from her mom’s childhood and her own upbringing, only occasionally straying into visual metaphors. That makes those moments stand out more—the transformation of her mother into a graceful crane, echoed by a paper crane floating in the next scene, has a particular resonance.

The title comes from an exchange about her mother’s resilience. She describes herself as “tough,” but Zheng pushes back with “strong” instead, and the slight shift in meaning is a key to the film. Tough keeps the world at a distance, coping with challenges by developing thicker skin. Strong has room to be supportive and open, facing up to the world without becoming numb to it. Despite the title, the film is a portrait of strength—it is Zheng’s attempt to open up, to understand, and to embrace her mother for the entirety of who she is.

Tough

dir. Jennifer Zheng, 2016

syn: Some things can only be understood with maturity.
New light is shed on childhood cultural misunderstandings when a Chinese mother and her British born daughter speak as adults for the first time.

With an original score by K. Preston Merkley
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