Like many queer Asian American women, the first time I ever saw Asian American lesbian relationships on the big screen was in Alice Wu’s 2004 film “Saving Face.”
My life experience was very different from those depicted in the film’s more insular Chinese American community in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York, but there were parallels nonetheless. I identified with the uncertainty of the film’s closeted main character, Wil, and admired her out, unapologetic and unafraid girlfriend, Vivian. I related to the intersecting pressures of family, culture, race and sexual orientation.
I eagerly awaited the follow-up to Wu’s debut film, but it turned out to be a long wait.
Fifteen years later, after taking time away from filmmaking to care for her mom, Wu is back with the sweet and surprising Netflix film, “The Half of It,” which is a Cyrano de Bergerac story with a queer Asian American twist. Set in the fictional rural Eastern Washington town of Squahamish, “The Half of It” bucks convention and challenges young adult romance tropes by asserting there are many different — and equally valuable — kinds of love. I caught up with Wu over the phone to talk about her work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why was it important to you to set “The Half of It” in a rural Washington town?
I think with both of my films, setting is a character for me, so where I’m going to set something matters a lot. And because I started writing this after [President Donald] Trump had been elected, I really wanted to write something … to figure out what’s going on with my country. Obviously I knew that there was racism and xenophobia and sexism and homophobia and all those things still existed, but I sort of bought into this idea that we were progressing. And after the election of Trump, it just seemed like we have these huge schisms, and whole sections of the country felt like they didn’t necessarily hold it as a value to work on those things. And in fact, might be deeply resentful about even being asked to work on it.
I tend to listen to my personal experience. I’m Asian, grew up with immigrant parents, I’m a lesbian. I do think that most people fundamentally are decent and that given the resources, they do try and do decent things, so that when [divisions] crop up, it usually comes more out of lack of feeling like they know anyone from a certain group.
I think that comes more out of lack of connection. And so that’s when I was thinking, “Well, I should just set the story in a town that would be more conservative.”
Since I did live in Washington state in my 20s, [Eastern Washington] seemed like a natural place. Because I know that the eastern part of the state is more conservative or maybe even Trump country, there was something about it that felt like the textures of that town [offered] some hope and acceptance that would be believable there and felt relatable to me.
“Saving Face” was a huge film for queer Asian American women in particular, and it was the first time many of us had ever seen that kind of representation on film. How do you think [representation] changed in the last 15 years? Do you think it has gotten better or not?
I like to think so. I mean, I think for no other reason than there feels like there’s a new crop of filmmakers that are starting to come out with their stories on both TV and film. And that’s really exciting.
I think people are more willing to take chances. I think Asian Americans as a community, queers as a community, queer Asians as a community, it’s become clear that we’re starved and hungry for content that we feel like reflects us.
And I think that I have a very specific voice that some people are gonna like, and some people are going to be disappointed by. But for the people who are disappointed, there’s going to be another filmmaker that’s going to come up with something that would be great for them, you know? And it feels like there’s more room for that now.
Do you have any words for the queer aspiring filmmakers of color who are trying to tell their stories, but don’t feel like there’s an audience or interest in them being told?
There’s definitely an audience. So they should keep trying to tell their stories.
Because the thing is this, there’s no one story that needs to be told and once it’s told, we’re done. I think there are as many stories that need to be told as there are people out there. And I think the more you write from the place of something that moves you, the more you’ll find your people. I never think, “What is the audience going to think of this?” Because I can’t possibly know. I don’t have that power. There’s literally no one movie that every single person on Earth is going to connect to, or one book or one song, right?
And so I’m already doomed to failure that someone’s going to not like it or be disappointed. So then if that’s the case then why not write the thing that’s truest to you?
Because right now I do feel sometimes like, “Oh, there aren’t enough queer Asian stories.” So I do feel the brunt of people who are [happy about my work at first], but then they’re like, “Well, why didn’t you do this?” And I super understand. Like I actually genuinely think that’s valid. And I feel like I want to hold space for them to feel that because I think it’s important.
I’m aware that I’m doomed to failure because I can’t possibly satisfy everyone, but I already know I can’t. But my hope would be that maybe if this film is considered successful, then maybe financiers will be like, “Great, let’s finance more of these.” And then that can finance some different voices and that can create a larger spectrum of stories.