When director Alice Wu's Saving Face premiered in 2004, it stood out from the vast majority of films being produced at the time. The protagonist, a Chinese American woman named Wilhemina Pang, falls in love with a woman, and has to figure out how to come out to her disapproving mother. She also has to navigate the sometimes judging eyes of her extended Chinese community in Queens—characters played by an all-Asian, Mandarin-speaking cast. Tears are shed and angry words shouted, but—spoiler alert—there's a happy ending; the women end up together, and publicly declare their love.
A little over 15 years later, Alice Wu is back with her second film, The Half of It, released May 1 on Netflix. Like her first, the movie features a queer Chinese American protagonist. This time, though, the character is a high schooler, Ellie Chu, who lives in the fictional, very white town of Squahamish with her immigrant father. She's in love with a girl named Aster Flores, but instead of pursuing her own feelings, opts to help a boy woo Aster via love letters and text messages. Over the course of the movie, Ellie and Paul become close friends and teen hearts get broken—a classic teenage rom-com, but with an LGBTQ twist.
Wu is making her comeback with triumph; on Wednesday, she took home the top award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's a return that she didn't anticipate—she had expected to leave the industry altogether, she says. Not long after the release of Saving Face, she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to take care of her mother, and it wasn't until much later that she began to write the script that became The Half of It.
Wu and I spoke about her new film, the legacy of Saving Face and the ways in which her own life bleeds into her work. Some mild spoilers follow, so tread carefully.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In both Saving Face and The Half of It, the protagonists are very imperfect people. They hurt the feelings of the people they love; they do things that they later regret. And your characters and work in general have so many elements in it that appear autobiographical— there's a Chinese American lesbian protagonist who speaks both Mandarin and English with her loved ones. What is it like to share those parts of your life with the world? Were you ever afraid to do so?
I'm actually filled with fear this very second as the film is about to come out.
I work out things in my life through my fiction. Fiction allows me to sort of hide a little bit behind my characters. It's not like my journal. It's more like, OK, I'm creating this character. I'm going to keep creating them until they feel real to me. I'm going to send them off into the world, to either do things that I'm too scared to do, or to have things befall them that sound like my personal nightmare and then see how they emerge.
Maybe there's a bit of wish fulfillment there, too. Here's these deeply flawed characters that have a lot of the flaws I do, but somehow they end up OK. Somehow, they end up growing. Maybe that's a little bit of my desire to have that in my life and to figure out how to do that. I'm writing from that place.
In your director's note, you wrote that writing the The Half of It was a way of working through heartbreak—not because of a romantic relationship, but because of the painful end of a friendship in your early twenties. Can you tell me more about that friendship and what it meant to you?
I had a really good friend, who eventually became my best friend, who was a straight white guy. He's not who I might have initially thought, "This is going to be the person that I will become best friends with." But we somehow just got each other. He was so good at treating me no differently when he found out I was gay.
Eventually, I had to move for a job. As he progressed with his life and he found somebody, there was a moment that was a little bit confusing for us. I actually remember this friend saying to me that he wasn't allowed to talk about the relationship with me, because his girlfriend felt threatened by that. I remember being like, If you can't talk to your best friend about what's happening in your romantic relationship, what is there to talk about? At the time I said, "This is going to kill our friendship. And if anything were going to happen between us, wouldn't it have already happened?"
And he said, "She's not threatened that we're going to have sex or anything. She's threatened by our intimacy."
Now that I'm older, I understand. I've also felt threatened by my partner's intimacy with someone else. We're human. We're going to have feelings of possessiveness. And that's OK. What I love about my characters, and about humans in general, is that we all have petty thoughts. And I think our flaws unite us.
I first heard about your work, and Saving Face, years ago from my friend, who's Chinese and was closeted to her parents until recently. Saving Face really mattered to her, and still does. I imagine you hear these kinds of stories a lot—for example, I've seen people in your Instagram comments sharing their stories of how important it was to see themselves be represented in film. What has it been like to receive that kind of feedback, and to be the receptor of these really powerful stories?
On the one hand, it touches me so much. I'm so moved that this is what someone takes from Saving Face, and that's when I feel like the film's bigger than me. I feel a little overwhelmed sometimes, that people think somehow I've managed to effect this change.
I know I made that film very specifically because of something I was trying to say to my mom. Once it went out there and all these people felt something, I feel like the film took on its own life. I love to think that I'm a part of that, but I think I'm one part of that.
Mostly, I'm just super grateful that people connected with it, especially for something I wrote that was so personal for me. It just makes me feel less alone. We can all sometimes feel like we're the only person feeling that pain, and that everybody else has figured something out.
In each of your movies, place has a really specific role. Saving Face took place in Queens, where the main character is surrounded by other Chinese folks. The Half of It takes place in the fictional Squahamish, Washington, where Ellie Chu and her widowed father are surrounded by white people. I'm curious why you decided to set The Half of It in a place where the main character feels so culturally isolated, in addition to her being gay.
I set it in East Washington state because I spent my twenties living in Washington state. I didn't want to make a film where the town felt menacing, like skinheads were going to come in and beat people up. But I wanted it to be a town where it's just accepted that there are certain attitudes that people have and no one really questions them. I was actually hoping to lure people in who live in a town like that right now, or grew up in a town like that. Hopefully, they fall in love with the characters, and then by the end it might make them think a little bit more about that one immigrant family in town. Because for whatever reason, in the whitest towns in the country, there's always one POC family or one immigrant family.
Ellie and her dad live in an all white town, except for Aster's family, the Flores family. They're the only other real people of color that we see in the film. But something that I talked to Alexxis Lemire, who plays Aster, a lot about, is this notion of passing. They're people of color, but they're also very "respectable." The father is a deacon in the church; they're handsome; Aster is dating the big man on campus. You can see the struggle she goes through, where she feels like she's "passing," and yet she doesn't fully. It's a different kind of thing to deal with than Ellie does. Ellie is obviously an immigrant person of color and has a different kind of experience lobbied against her. But I feel like these two girls can also understand each other on this other level of not being entirely of the dominant culture.
There's a moment when the Flores family is sitting among old society Squahamish folks and her dad suddenly turns to Aster and says in Spanish, sit up straight, sit like a lady. I felt like anybody who has ever grown up with another language at home will instantly understand that; you gotta keep up appearances for the white people or for the dominant culture, even though Aster and her family were born in the U.S.
One thing I was really struck by in this movie was that there's this undercurrent of religion and church, and the role that God does or doesn't play in the character's lives. Some of the most pivotal scenes happen in this town's church, and Ellie is the only one who says that she doesn't believe in God. I'm so curious why you so deliberately wrote religion and spirituality into this movie.
It's something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I didn't grow up in any organized religion. For years, my mom's health wasn't very good, so when I was a kid, I was in and out of hospitals all the time. Somewhere along the line I picked up this habit of praying. It's weird, because it's not like I know that I believe in God. But maybe I was just hedging my bets, like, in case there's something out there I want you to know that these are the things that I'm worried about right now, and if you could lend a hand that'd be great.
There's just a part of me that really thinks a lot about if there is a larger order to the universe. At a certain point, I just decided to believe, because I just prefer the person I am when I do. And when I came to that, I finally started writing again. And when the writing came, I started writing the script for The Half of It.
In your movies, family plays such an important role in the main characters' lives. How much of your own family life and memories of growing up are reflected in your movies?
My dad and I are both so conflict averse, so in The Half of It, there is something so real to me about Ellie and her father. It seems very clear to me that Ellie and her father love each other. But there's also the specter of the mom having passed away, and clearly the mom was the one who pushed them out of their comfort zone. Now, these two are like peas in a pod, and it's warm but it's almost tragic. If Ellie makes no changes in her life, she's going to be her dad, who has far more potential than is getting realized in this backwater town.
At the end, when she's leaving for college to start her own life, he doesn't tell her I love you, you need to do this. What he does is he makes her a ton of dumplings. That's exactly how my parents and I communicate. I feel so much love in that scene, where they're not even able to look at each other, they're both looking forward. But it's so clear that he's saying, I will absolutely give up my own fear and terror, and I'm going to be OK. Go off, live your life.