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'Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó' director Sean Wang on authenticity over acclaim

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The Academy Award-nominated short film “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó" was born out of the emotional juxtaposition of joy and silliness amid the backdrop of anti-Asian hate crimes.

First-generation Taiwanese American director Sean Wang, who had been living in New York City for over five years, decided it was time to return home in 2021 to the Bay Area where his grandmothers resided. At the time, his homecoming coincided with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, especially in San Francisco, where 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was shoved to the ground while he was out on a morning walk. The Thai immigrant's eventual death helped galvanize what would be known as the Stop Asian Hate movement.

The surge in violence and racism against the Asian American community brought Wang to a headspace of anger, pain and worry for his grandparents.

“I had this thought that when I do eventually move out of the Bay Area, that could very likely be the last time I see my grandmas,” Wang tells NextShark. “And so it was all of those feelings kind of coming together and kind of becoming this. I just wanted to make something that captures their humanity, captures their spirits, captures the essence of who these two amazing people are in my life for myself or my family for future generations. And that was sort of the seed that became this movie.”

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The 16-minute film became Wang’s personal love letter to his grandmothers on both of his parents’ side (“Nai Nai” and “Wai Po”), who are inseparable best friends and roommates in their 80s and 90s. The short, which features dialogue in both Mandarin and English, is a multigenerational story that captures the women’s daily lives through amusing and unexpected glimpses as they dance, cook, clean and even fart their sorrows away. Beyond the comedic aspects, the narrative evolves into a thoughtful contemplation on lives marked by a blend of joy and pain, while challenging the stereotype that growing older must inevitably lead to fading away.

“They're incredible,” Wang says about his grandmas. “They're magic. They are the most pure form of joy in my life. And when I'm with them, I think you can feel it in the film, there's this sort of silliness and youthfulness that they bring out of me, and hopefully, that I bring out of them.”

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Filming "Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó" marked a departure from Wang's typical projects. He says that the production lacked a definitive shot list, characterizing the collaborative process with producer Sam Davis as akin to “making a movie before we knew how to make movies.”

“I had been living with them for a few months before we shot, and I was just like, ‘What do I want to remember? What are the images that I see on a daily basis right now that I want to kind of have?’ And that was them reading the newspaper together, it was Wai Po washing the dishes, it was her playing the piano, it was my grandma looking at her notepad with the microscope, like that was all very specific things that I wanted to capture,” Wang shares.

The production involved a balance of directed scenes and spontaneous moments, with Wang acknowledging the presence of his filmmaker's touch in the film. Despite some prompting, his goal was to maintain authenticity, allowing the audience to feel the honest dynamics of the relationships portrayed.

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“They're doing stuff that is definitely prompted, but in a way that feels honest to the relationship that we have,” Wang says. “Because as much as this movie is about them, and for them, it's also a movie about them making a movie with me. And so we kind of want it to have that feeling of them being aware that a movie is being made while we're making it.”

The resulting film reflecting Wang’s deep love for Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó would eventually go on to win the Grand Jury Prize and audience award at SXSW and the Grand Jury Awards at AFI Fest and SIFF 2023 before earning an Oscar nomination on Jan. 23. It was acquired by Disney in November 2023 and will be available to stream on Disney Plus and Hulu on Feb. 9 as part of the first installment of Disney’s “People and Places” relaunch, which pays homage to Walt Disney’s documentary film series from the 1950s and 1960s.

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Aside from the hype around his short film, Wang recently premiered his feature film “DiDi” in competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film. “DiDi” is a coming-of-age story and semi-autobiographical film that follows an insecure 13-year-old Taiwanese American who navigates adolescence before entering high school. The movie, which marks the first release for Estrada’s Antigravity Academy, was recently sold to Focus Features.

Although Wang admits to feeling overwhelmed by all the recognition and accolades he has received, he reminds himself that they are not his primary reasons for creating films. Wang reflects on a shift in his approach to filmmaking, admitting that he once placed substantial importance on external validation from prestigious festivals like Sundance and South by Southwest. However, as he matured in his craft, he redirected his focus toward personal authenticity and the intrinsic value of a project. ​​

He says the heart behind a film is invaluable and costs nothing, emphasizing the importance of creating work that holds personal meaning. The achievements, while appreciated, have become secondary to the genuine connection he feels to the stories he tells. Although Wang expresses happiness and excitement about the film's success, he underscores that true success, in his view, lies in creating films that resonate personally, independent of external recognition.

“Oftentimes, it's easy to get distracted from this simple ethos, which is, heart doesn't cost anything,” Wang shares. “You can have the most high-profile projects with name, talent or expensive equipment. But at the end of the day, the projects that are the most meaningful, that you often are able to make the most honest and meaningful, are the ones that are closest to home. And that access, those relationships, that doesn't cost anything. That comes from a human level, and like that the heart of this movie really didn't cost that much. But it was the fact that we decided to do it that made all the difference.”

Asked about his upcoming projects, Wang humorously mentions his immediate focus on eating a fruit bowl, later emphasizing his current need to recharge after years of working on his feature film. He conveys his intention to take a moment to reset and echoes the importance of ensuring that his next project aligns with the heartfelt approach seen in his recent works.

“Now that there's a lot of other stuff coming at me, I’m making sure I'm not just saying yes to things because they are shiny,” he says. “There needs to be a sort of a beating heart underneath because it takes a long time to make stuff. It's hard. So I want to make sure if I'm gonna spend three or four years of my life working on something, that’s something that really excites me.”

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