“Enough is enough.” Those words rang inside director Jean Shim’s head as she witnessed an onslaught of anti-Asian hatred erupt across North America during the pandemic.
“I was just flabbergasted,” Shim, a Korean American, tells Pancouver over Zoom. “At my age, I didn’t expect this to be happening in my community.”
Some people of Asian ancestry attended demonstrations in response to horrific images of Asian seniors and younger women being pushed to the pavement. Others donated to nonprofit societies created to counter anti-Asian hatred.
Shim, on the other hand, decided to make a film, A Great Divide, which screens on Saturday (November 4) evening at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. In it, she tells a narrative about a family of Korean Americans who encounter intense racism after moving from the Bay Area to rural Wyoming.
“That was an avenue where you can speak to people’s hearts and create empathy,” Shim says. “When you hear a story about someone’s life, your heart gets softened, whatever issue that might be.”
A Great Divide stars Ken Jeong (The Masked Singer) and Jae Suh Park (Friends from College, Never Have I Ever) as a married couple, Issac and Jenna Lee. Their son, Benjamin (Emerson Min), and his visiting friend, Ellie Licht (Miya Cech), try to live normal teenage lives in the frightening world of redneck, red-state America.
Meanwhile, Benjamin’s grandmother, played by MeeWha Alana Lee, periodically appears to share her wisdom.
“We are Koreans,” Grandma tells Benjamin at one point. “Adversity and sorrow are in our bones.”
Shim depicts reality on-screen
As director and cowriter of the film and a resident of Wyoming, Shim knows every aspect of this story in her soul. In fact, almost all of the scenes reflected real-life incidents in the lives of Shim and her family and friends. This included a trip to a restaurant with statements on the wall declaring “You are entering a redneck area”, “Freedom fries”, and “Rock, paper, gun, I win.”
“Sometimes, in those authentic moments, you’re going to see stereotypes because that is what happens,” Shim says.
She adds that the parents, Isaac and Jenna, are also rooted in authenticity. Isaac is more accommodating to racists, trying to reduce their venom through humour and charm. Jenna, on the other hand, is the prototypical strong Korean woman who’s far less willing to compromise. The script offers each of the actors, Jeong and Park, ample opportunity to reflect their characters’ motivations.
Shim felt it was essential to tell a narrative on film about anti-Asian hatred from the vantage point of an Asian director and writer. She shares writing credits with Jeff Yang (Asian American Life) and Martina Nagle (Praying the Hours).
In addition, Shim ensured that people of Asian ancestry headed key departments such as cinematography, music, editing, production design, costume design, and makeup.
“And then the investors were all Asian,” Shim adds. “That was particularly important to me because I felt this was a story that we needed to tell and share.”
Finding a sense of belonging
A Great Divide cinematographer Ray Huang conveys the magnificence of the Wyoming landscape with some spectacular imagery.
“I always felt like the spirit of the land was speaking to me—almost shaking their head at me—saying you humans are doing this to each other and we’re watching,” Shim says.
Then Shim gets philosophical. She points out that when racism occurs, some people of Asian ancestry “just stick their head down”, work hard, and try to ignore it. In part, she believes it’s because there hasn’t traditionally been a strong culture around standing up and voicing opinions.
“I think that also, it’s not feeling it’s a part of our land, maybe. So, we don’t feel like we have that voice to do so,” Shim adds. “Who knows? Maybe that’s subconscious. I don’t know.”
Even though Shim was born in the United States, she reveals that she has never felt 100 percent American. Nor has she ever felt 100 percent Korean.
“I’m in this in-between land, but I never thought that I would see this kind of hate with the elderly—to women—just in general,” she states. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Shim says that the hardest thing for a director is getting the tone right for a film like A Great Divide. The story could have been told with anger, cynicism, or a desire for revenge.
“My tone to the film was really empathy,” the director reveals. “That’s just who I am.”
Festivals stimulate dialogue
Moreover, it’s hopeful. This reflects her firm belief that the younger generation can make different choices. In fact, younger characters in the film, including Benjamin and Ellie, demonstrate tremendous growth as they react to difficult circumstances.
Shim points out that the two young actors, Min and Cech, already demonstrated great chemistry in the 2019 film, Always Be My Maybe, which starred Ali Wong and Randall Park.
“I thought it would be really great to see them older,” Shim says. “I always loved this kind of coming-of-age [story]—and seeing these Asian kids in a more modern time.”
Her movie has been warmly received at film festivals in some very red states. Next month, it will be at the inaugural Jackson Hole International Film Festival in her home state of Wyoming.
“In the heartland, they’re very open—especially at these festivals,” Shim says. “I was pleased because at least we’re having a dialogue.”
Watch the trailer for A Great Divide.
Jean Shim will be in attendance when the Vancouver Asian Film Festival presents A Great Divide at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday (November 4) at International Village Cineplex. For more information and tickets, visit the VAFF website.