Yellow Rose Gives a New Face to Country Music

Director Diane Paragas blooms in her Austin-made drama

The new Texas: Eva Noblezada in Yellow Rose

Rose is about as Texan as they come. From her crimson red cowboy hat down to her faded blue jeans and a voice as vast as our sprawling Texas skies, she's got all the makings of a great country singer. The only thing she doesn't have is papers.

In her multi-award-winning feature Yel­low Rose, director and UT alum Diane Paragas writes a love letter to the Lone Star State in the form of Rose Garcia (Eva Noble­zada), an undocumented Filipina who follows her quintessentially Texan dream of leaving Lubbock to pursue country music in Austin. The film boasts an all-star cast – including Tony winner Lea Salonga, known best for originating the title role in Miss Saigon and her roles as beloved Disney princesses Mulan and Jasmine, and local favorite, country singer Dale Watson – to help Rose along her long and winding road in search for a place to call home.

As an Asian American immigrant myself who grew up with my own pair of red boots to match Rose's, I was glued to this film from the first moments of the trailer showing an Asian girl in a cowboy hat trying to pry her eyes wider. Yellow Rose rewrites the age-old story of the country singer in the vision of an immigrant finding harmonies between the Fifties and Sixties country hits that Rose loves and the quintessential Filipino love song, "Dahil Sa Lyo." The well-known song is interwoven throughout the film with "Square Peg, Round Hole," an equally soft and vulnerable song that Rose writes about not fitting in; these two motifs, a song from both of her homes, offer great musical insight into Rose's duality.

"It's just a song that every Filipino knows," Paragas said about "Dahil Sa Lyo." "It's this cultural baton that we pass on to each other. It means 'Because of you.' It's a very romantic song about love, of all these sacrifices I would make because of you. I also didn't want to translate that to just let the song have the meaning it has in the film." Paragas made the decision to not subtitle any of the few moments characters speak Tagalog in the film, because of her conviction that "the minute you subtitle, they become foreigners and it takes you out of the story."

This story at once rails against the typical country singer plot in that the protagonist is an undocumented immigrant, just as Amer­ican as anyone else, and it rails against the typical immigration narrative in that Rose is Filipina, part of America's fastest growing ethnic group and yet still largely underrepresented in narratives about immigration.

Yet this isn't a pro-immigrant movie, or an anti-immigrant movie. It's not targeted at liberals or conservatives, politicians or the apolitical. There are no grand platitudes or bigoted villains in this film, no protest scenes or educational explanations of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Even as this film chronicles the catastrophic effect of immigration policies on Rose's life at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is as high and visible as ever, the film surprisingly evades politicization.

To add to this layer of the film is the fact that most of the characters help Rose look more like the political party trying to kick her out, especially in the notoriously conservative South. Calling the evil redneck trope "low hanging fruit," Paragas said she opted to intentionally show the face of sympathy on a person-to-person level. This choice to characterize with kindness rather than villainization was a heartwarming success, as characters like Watson or Broken Spoke owner Jolene (Libby Villari) give a face to what real Southern hospitality could look like. More than just offering Rose a place to sleep or food or even a job, they support her in chasing her dream. The only villain is Immigration and Customs Enforce­ment, and Paragas said she intentionally does not show their faces, to emphasize the villain as a systemic problem.

While this choice to humanize the white Southerners ran the risk of looking through rose-colored glasses, it pays off in the ability to actually change some hearts. Paragas recounts an earlier screening that was unexpectedly and, to her initial fear, made up of mostly of Trump supporters. "Maybe one of the most passionate groups of people that have spoken to me after," Paragas said, "were white men. This one man who was a Trump supporter, [told me] 'First of all I haven't cried like that since John Wayne. I also think Trump should renew DACA.' They weren't villainized, so it gave them an entry point to have sympathy for the immigrants in the film."

Yet Paragas assures us that this is still a love letter to the dichotomies of the U.S. as "the America that breaks your heart, the America that gives you hope." Paragas, an immigrant herself whose family left the Philippines to escape martial law, went through her share of setbacks to create Yellow Rose. Much like Rose's odyssey to find a new home, Paragas went on a 15-year journey to bring this film to fruition, enduring financial setbacks and countless rejections. She was on the brink of making a decision worse than giving up: allowing producers to whitewash her Filipino Amer­i­can story. Her turning point came at the Toronto International Film Festival, listening to Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Queen of Katwe) talk about how she couldn't wait any longer for there to be a South Asian story in the mainstream, so she had to make one herself. "I remember at that moment, I [thought], I don't care how long it takes. I will make this movie. You really have one chance to make your first impression as a filmmaker. And that thing that you put out there better be who you are as a person, as a filmmaker, and what makes you unique. I hope this film does its small part in renewing the dignity of the immigrant in this country."

If audiences truly accept the duality of Rose as both Filipino and Texan, as both undocumented and American, then they won't dare narrowly confine Yellow Rose to the Asian American film canon. Rather, audiences should also consider it as a new contender to the canon of what it means to be Texan.

Yellow Rose opens Oct. 9. Read our review here.

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Yellow Rose, Diana Paragas, Women Filmmakers, Texas Filmmakers, Eva Noblezada, Dale Watson, Country Music, Lea Salonga

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