By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Before watching Sean Wang’s “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” you might think this will be a simple short film about a young man’s grandparents. It’s bound to be loving and also culturally informative. But actually, this award-winning “slice of life” of Wang’s two grandmothers is so much more.
“We wanted to make a movie that honored [their relationship] and humanized them in a way that I hadn’t really seen people like them portrayed in media or the news,” Wang told the Asian Weekly in an interview. “We wanted to make a holistic portrait of them and their relationship to each other, but also their relationship to me, in a very specific moment in time.”
This tiny film packs a big wallop. Right from the start, you know you are in the hands of a filmmaker already wise beyond his years, who uses experimental angles and unexpected vignettes to form a whole picture of two women so important in his life: Chang Li Hua, his maternal grandmother (wài pó), and Yi Yan Fuei, his paternal grandmother (nǎi nai). The short film begins with a view from the ceiling of the two women lying in bed—one is still sleeping and the other, awake, waves to the camera and says “hello” to Sean. For myself, I was immediately caught off guard—wow, a scene of two elderly women in their bedroom? That’s unconventional. And by the way, why are they together in the bedroom? How did they end up in this situation where they share a home?
Wang, who is Taiwanese American, born in San Jose, explained that he grew up with his nǎi nai, while his wài pó lived in Taiwan for most of his childhood. He and his parents would visit her in the summers. Wang had left for college when his wài pó came to live with the rest of them in Fremont, California.
“That was the start of their relationship together under one roof and their sisterhood, or friendship,” he said. “I am lucky that they found each other.”
It’s really a charmed relationship, the one that the two women share. They spend nearly all of their time together, and of course, they are delighted when their grandson comes to visit. In 2021, when Wang moved from New York, where he had been living, back to California, he realized that he was “never [again] going to have this much time to spend with them and live with them in my young adult life.” The time spent filming was “the first time in a long time that I’ve spent that much time with my grandmothers under one roof. It was a very special moment for [me].”
Wang’s nǎi nai and wài pó don’t mind hamming it up for the camera, but they also get serious. Both have led rich, varied lives, and both have been affected by the anti-Asian hate in the United States, to the point of mentioning that they are afraid to go out of the house. As Wang explained, the time they were filming “happened to coincide with a lot of anti-Asian hate crimes” both in the country and “in our backyard,” i.e. the San Francisco Bay area. Going from reading headlines about “people like them,” elderly Asians, being attacked, to “seeing my grandmothers and seeing their smiles and feeling their joy,” was a very “strange emotion” for Wang. It strengthened his desire to show the world through this film that elderly Asians deserve respect and care.
“The version of them that I see in the headlines does not reflect the version that I know,” Wang continued. “So that was kind of the goal—to make a three-dimensional portrait of their lives to show that people like them, elderly people in our communities, are just as full of joy and youth.”
Everyone has a unique and special life. Everyone has a story. We don’t learn a lot about the two women in this film, and yet we do. We know that one of them had a harder time in life than the other (“harder” being relative, of course). We know that nǎi nai, at 83, feels like she’s 20, as she says at the beginning, while wài pó, at 94, feels like she’s 100, she laughs, and it’s bittersweet. We know they are trying hard to stay fit as well as they can within the confines of their home, and we know they love their grandson. They do their best to stay upbeat, but of course, sometimes they feel down, such as when wài pó studies mementoes of people in her life that she has lost.
“Young people also deal with feelings of loneliness and pain,” Wang commented. But these feelings are even more intense, perhaps, for someone with so much life behind them. “I don’t know what it’s like to see my friends pass away,” Wang added.
“Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” which is in both English and Mandarin Chinese, is available to view on Hulu and as part of a Disney+ relaunch of “People & Places,” a series that first ran in the 1950s and 1960s, and which is described as “a mix of up-and-coming and established filmmakers telling the real-life stories of extraordinary people and places from around the globe.”
“Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” premiered at SXSW, where it took home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. The recognition has kept coming from there, including an Academy Award nomination for “Outstanding Documentary Short Film.” Wang is now looking forward to the public at large discovering not only “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” but a full-length feature film, “DìDi.”
In descriptions of “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” Wang’s grandmothers are called “superheroes.” The Asian Weekly asked Wang why he thought that was. He answered, “You zoom in on these people in these lives that can seem very ordinary and you go very up close and you explore the day-to-day, quotidian lifestyle that they have. When you zoom in that much, you realize that the most ordinary lives are extraordinary, that to be alive, to be human, is very, very heroic.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.