Ella is a 2018 short film by Chinese American filmmaker Dan Chen. Left behind by the same person, Ella (Nichole Bloom) and Abe (Dallas Liu) find connection and solace on a slow summer day in small-town America. I spoke with Dan about his poignant film and the challenging truths about Asian America that it gently lays bare.
Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead. So please watch it now.
Diana: I wanted to talk about your short film Ella as it relates to Asian American identity. We did a podcast together about other young POC narratives in EFPA Ep. 102. There, we talked about several recent shows from different critical angles, and afterward, I realized that what you’ve done in Ella, this 16-minute short film, is something truly novel and beautiful. It’s everything I wanted to see in an Asian American youth narrative, distilled.
To me, Ella is a faithful and tender portrayal of Asian American life in the Midwest. The loneliness and isolation that is unspoken but palpable. It reminded me of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell in that way. The writing, as well, feels distinctly Asian American, because it’s so rich with implied context. It gave me flashbacks. I’ve watched it five times already.
Dan: Hahaha, no way!
Diana: Oh yeah, I cried. I also thought it spoke to the gender divide in the Asian American discourse in a subtle but powerful way. In the narratives we’ve seen before, a story from the perspective of a male writer will often face backlash from the women of that community or vice versa. I don’t see that happening with Ella, yet it succeeds in showing the impacts of gendered racism: the different ways that young Asian American men and women are isolated, the ways we can take that pain and hurt each other with it, but also the ways that we can come together and find solace. The ending was truly touching.
There’s so much depth, so many layers. I wanted to hear your thoughts on it, what your intentions were, how you came to create this film. I think it’s so meaningful and I want everybody to see it.
Dan: Well thanks. I feel like you’ve explained so much of my intention going into it, I’m trying to think of what I can add to that because you touched on a lot of it.
Diana: What sets Ella apart for me is, you write this female character so well. Ella the character has so much emotional complexity in a role that could easily have been a flat trope. She kind of reminded me of Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.
Dan: Yeah, yeah, but like for the youth.
Diana: I think that’s rare. Because a lot of the criticism from women that we were discussing in terms of gendered narratives is, male writers often don’t seem to be able to either empathize with or express a woman’s range of emotions.
Dan: Thank you, I appreciate that. I feel like the gender divide discussion in the Asian American community gets very frustrating because it gets very combative very fast, and part of this movie, as well as being a personal story, is about acknowledging that divide, but also having characters fight their way through and — not really come to a solution — but at least see each other’s pain and see each other’s humanity.
Diana: That’s all you can really ask of anyone that doesn’t directly experience your pain. Your work eloquently showed that with the characters’ actions, like you as the creator gave your characters the space to express themselves fully.
Dan: Totally, you want the movie to work on multiple levels. You want it to work on people who aren’t aware of these issues. But maybe if they watch it and empathize, they do come to an understanding, in an unconscious way. That may be more effective in some ways. You didn’t tell them to think about a certain thing. You don’t tell them to think a certain way. You just made them feel what it is to feel that way.
“You didn’t tell them to think about a certain thing. You don’t tell them to think a certain way. You just made them feel what it is to feel that way.”
Diana: Was Ella intended to be a mixed-race woman?
Dan: Yes, so I’m a very experiential person. I usually work from personal experience first, then branch out from there for research and networks. I cast friends first, then friends of friends, and then find new people. Part of Ella was, my high school girlfriend was mixed-race. She was half-Japanese, half white. I was close to someone who was mixed-race growing up, in that time period and in that age range, so I wanted to do justice to that character.
In a broader, external context, I felt that half-Asian or mixed-race people in Asian America never really get accurate representation. [Mixed-white Asians] are used interchangeably with full Asian people. In the interest of authenticity and exploring what that experience is really like, I intended her to be mixed-race Asian. I was also friends with Nichole from USC, I wrote the script with her in mind, and she is mixed-race, so I wanted that to match the character.
Diana: It’s so accurate. We see she’s generally more socially included than Abe because she’s white. But in other moments we see the ways she’s still alienated.
Dan: I’m glad that came across. You do get the feeling that she can walk anywhere she wants, she can insert herself into any situation, and she does. But also, even though she can do that, because she’s half Asian, she can be fetishized or othered on the turn of a dime if the other people want to do that, which they do.
Diana: I definitely feel that, even being a full Asian woman, that I have more privilege in social spaces in the US than Asian men. But it comes at a cost; I don’t own it. It’s like a spectrum. If I’m here, then a mixed-white woman is there, and it was affirming to see those differences portrayed with such nuance and realism.
You said on Twitter you wanted to make Ella for seven years. How did you become a filmmaker and what was your process of finally making Ella?
Dan: I worked on Just Doug (2017) with Doug Kim, and that was my first time telling an explicitly Asian American story.
So I’m Chinese American. I lived in St. Louis as a kid and moved to Manhattan, Kansas when I was 10. That move triggered the whole movie-making bug for me. I felt like we were moving to the middle of nowhere. I felt alienated, and that’s when I really took solace in movies, in anime, just watching as much as I could and having that be my way of connecting to humans for a while.
Ultimately, I became social again because I ended up loving movies so much that I said, “what if I started making movies? I can make movies now. I can get a camera, I can write a script.” I found confidence in that. I was like, “I’m the kid who makes movies. No one else does that here.”
I met my best friend in middle school because he was making home video action movies, and I went up to him and said, “hey, let’s collaborate on something, I got a script, let’s do it.” That’s how I talked to anybody in high school. I’d say, “hey I’m making a movie, do you want to be in it? It’s filming on Saturday.” That’s how I found my place again.
From 14 onward I felt like that’s all I wanted to do, there was no other game plan, no other career path I wanted. I went to USC for their film program, and I thought, OK that seems exciting, let’s do that.
“I never actually had an Asian American male protagonist in anything until I did ‘Just Doug’.”
I cast myself and my friends in my movies in high school, and in film school, I would cast my friends in projects. It’s funny, though, I never actually had an Asian American male protagonist in anything until I did Just Doug. I wonder if it was a sense of personal alienation from myself, or the thought of, oh well, he playing an Asian American male protagonist, that’s not a normal protagonist, now it’s going to be a different kind of movie than one that many people could relate to now.
I think I was in that colonized mindset until I worked with Doug on the deeply personal story that he wrote. Working on Just Doug, I realized how refreshing and cathartic it was to see the world through his eyes. Doug put himself as the main character. He had the courage to do that. He’s not making a perfect version of himself, and I admired that. I was in Kansas, right after Just Doug, and I think the combination of those things made me feel like I was ready to write from my own perspective.
The Coming of Age story is a genre that I’ve always wanted to play in. Growing up in Kansas was a formative time in my life and I always thought about telling stories about it. But whenever I sat down to write that story, there would always be a nebulous main character at the center.
It was always a white main character in my head, and I couldn’t honestly picture the details of that kid’s house or how his parents acted. I found that I couldn’t authentically write that character. So all these sketches of the coming of age stories that I’d write would all eventually fall apart because I couldn’t do the character work.
It wasn’t until after Just Doug that I thought, “what if it’s about an Asian American kid?” It really required that one extra step to be like, “oh! Now I feel equipped to tell the story.”
Diana: Wow, that was really a watershed moment.
Dan: Yeah, the gender divide and this feeling of isolation, too. That all came out naturally once I figured out WHO the main character was.
“It’s more comfortable for people to write these hypermasculine, hyperconfident Asian American male characters, because they’re saying “oh this is what we COULD be or this is what THEY COULD be.”
Diana: That’s another thing I loved about Ella: it was so naturalistic. Quietly anxious, awkward Abe. I know so many young Asian guys like that. I’ve known SO many Asian American young men who are just like that. I’ve always wondered why and now I realize, “oh they had SHIT to deal with. They had to deal with SO MUCH SHIT.” I never really put the pieces together, until more recently.
Just Doug is also a wonderful perspective, but he’s coming from a much older, more confident, successful place. I also compare Ella to PEN15, another show I love about Asian American teens. Shuji, the brother of the main character, Maya, is played by Dallas Liu, who plays Abe in Ella. He’s fantastic in both, but his PEN15 character seemed unrealistic to me.
Dan: How confident that character is.
Diana: Yeah! Like “Really? You, an 8th-grade Asian kid, and your black best friend routinely call out racism in your suburban Midwest middle school?”
Dan: In the year 2000! Hahahahaha.
Diana: Hahahahaha. Even the idea of this Asian girl having a white best friend who’d stick with her to even discuss racism is preposterous to me. When I was that age, girls would just fucking end a friendship for the stupidest reasons.
Dan: hahahaha yeah, it’s interesting. I love PEN15 and love everyone involved because they’re doing great work and their craft is incredible. That said, when I see a character like Shuji, I think it’s because a lot of people don’t know how to deal with Asian American male characters.
The loneliness and the awkwardness that you describe in Abe, I think, is something not a lot of people want to touch. I can’t entirely figure out why. I think it’s because that awkwardness makes people uncomfortable. It’s more comfortable for people to write these hypermasculine, hyperconfident Asian American male characters because they’re saying “oh this is what we COULD be or this is what THEY COULD be.” You look at Shuji and he’s standing up for his sister. He’s so cool, so much cooler than the main character.
Or when you look at Simu Liu recently cast as Shang Chi. I love the guy, and he also represents this kind of ultra-aspirational Asian male: “He’s nice, he’s in shape, he’s funny, isn’t this the way we wish we could be?” The fact is, I love that kind of personality. I also feel like there are lots of Asian American boys and men who live more like Abe. I think people like that, we aren’t used to seeing them on screen. Honestly, I was one of those kids, I’m fascinated by those kids, and I want to tell more stories from that perspective.
Diana: Totally. I was too. Now I look at Shuji and Doug, and I’m like “Kick ass! Go get ‘em!” But I know when I was younger and far less confident, I would have thought, “I’m not like that, is it something wrong with me?”
Dan: That’s interesting. Growing up I was socialized by the movies. There were very few Asian characters to look up to, so a lot of the people I aspired to were not Asian. This is something I’m trying to figure out. I wrote Ella as a story that I wanted to see and tell. I’m very curious if a teenager were to watch it, what they would think. When I was a teenager I didn’t want to see stories about awkward kids. I wanted to see stories about confident, interesting, dynamic people.
I’m fascinated by what a teenage reading of Ella would be. I feel like I am delicately looking back at this memory of high school. But when you’re in high school you know, you don’t want to be Robin, you want to be Batman.
Diana: Hahahahaha. Well, I’m the opposite of you. When I was younger seeing more awkward antiheroes like Maya and Abe would have validated my insecurities. Now I want to see confident dynamic role models.
Also, when I was younger, like middle school to college, there was more representation of Asian women in the media, but they would all be super skinny, sexy ninja math genius sidekicks, and I’d be like, “mmmmmm, I’m maybe like 1 out of 10 of those things?” So in addition to not seeing myself as the main character, I always felt inadequate, like I can’t live up to this Asian female ideal.
Dan: Totally, totally.
Diana: I wonder if that’s a gendered difference as well.
Dan: It could be, it totally could be.
Diana: But that also speaks to how important a plenitude of narratives is. Different people need different things.
Dan: Yeah. I think it’s an interesting thing. More to that, in the future, I want to do projects where we do follow more kids like Abe. And I want to see them through the whole spectrum of emotions, pride happiness, sadness, all of it. I’m just getting started. Ella was a big culmination of things I wanted to tell.
After I made it, my appetite’s even bigger as far as what I want to do and what we all can do as far as the storytelling goes. I want to explore more characters like Abe and Ella, who are flawed, I do want to tell more coming of age stories, and I want to play with genre. I want to do science fiction, body horror, I want to do a lot, honestly.
“There’s a lot of stories we have left to tell about when life kind of sucks, but you find beauty and connection in it anyway.”
Diana: That’s awesome, I can’t wait to see it all. Any closing thoughts?
Dan: One thing is, I don’t know how I came across Plan A but after doing Just Doug and Ella, I only wanted to dive deeper into this perspective of Asian American storytelling. There’s such rich territory to go into, and somewhere along the way, I started listening to the podcast and reading the articles. Those have been really formative and engaging to me as well. It’s challenging dialogue, and I think that, honestly, is what interests me.
I love every aspirational story we tell, where everyone is cool and we wish we look like that and dress like that. I also love talking about underdogs and outsiders. There’s a lot of stories we have left to tell about when life kind of sucks, but you find beauty and connection in it anyway. I’d love to explore more of that territory in the future, and I’m grateful for Plan A for having those challenging dialogues. There’s so much material for all of us to work through.