Amy-Xiaoshi DePaola, AsAmNews Contributor
What if you received a love letter and fell in love with the writer, only to discover that the writer was a completely different person?
That’s the premise of Netflix’s latest coming-of-age dramedy, The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu.
Ellie Chu is isolated in the tiny town of Squahamish, Washington, where she and her father are the only Chinese Americans. Her classmates regularly call out “Chugga chugga Chu Chu!” in mockery of her last name, and she’s only sought after for her under-the-table gig writing essays for others. Her days are spent practicing her guitar, reading books, and watching old movies with her dad.
That all changes when she meets Paul, who is desperate to catch the eye of his crush, popular girl Aster. Ellie writes love letters as Paul to Aster, and it becomes a match of minds and souls — without Aster knowing that the true writer is Ellie.
Unlike Wu’s last film, Saving Face, which she calls her “attempt to make the biggest romantic comedy featuring Asian Americans,” The Half of It is a more “naturalistic” coming-of-age film, where romance isn’t the only focal point.
“In the course of the story, these three people collide,” Wu said in a phone interview with AsAmNews. “It’s much more of a journey to understanding oneself… to being open, to finally being willing to take a stand for themselves. And they would never have had that courage had they not interacted with each other.”
The inspiration of the film was Wu’s own teenage friendship with a guy friend from the heartlands, where his girlfriend was “threatened by [their] intimacy,” despite knowing that Wu was gay.
From there, The Half of It was born.
“For one: I used to think there was only one way to love. That A plus B minus C equals Love,” Wu said in her director’s statement. “Now that I’m older, I see there are more. So many more ways to love than I had ever imagined.”
In the film, protagonist Ellie lives a dual life of “fantasy and family,” dreaming to get out of her small town but finding it hard to leave her father, who has a story that may be familiar to many Asian American immigrants.
“We had to go where my dad could get a job,” Ellie tells Paul in the film. “The plan was to be promoted to system engineer. Or anything engineer… Turns out speaking good English trumps having a PhD.”
Meanwhile, Ellie struggles with what love is, not just for Aster — another small-town girl with her own familial expectations — but for herself.
Wu sees shades of her younger self in the film’s protagonist: “I wasn’t out to myself until my senior year of college, so similar to Ellie. I don’t think Ellie’s in a place where she’s, like, ‘I’ve accepted this about myself, I can choose in a place of love or even some exciting future life.'”
“I think most of us felt lonely in high school… that’s a common feeling for most adolescents. But it’s an extra layer if you’re queer,” she added.
On queer Asian representation
“I got so insanely lucky” that Saving Face (2004) was made, Wu said.
She held onto the film’s original premise, a Chinese American New Yorker trying to come out to her mother, despite pressures from distributors to make the protagonists “White” and only “a little gay” — with no Mandarin dialogue or big-name Caucasian stars.
It was the first Hollywood movie that centered about Chinese Americans since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, and an all-Asian American romantic comedy before 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians.
Wu describes the autobiographical-inspired film as “a love letter to my mom,” and wanted to send a message to the Asian queer community that it was possible to “have romantic love and your family” in the end.
“As a queer Asian lesbian, I need to see it. Otherwise, how can I possibly believe that it can happen?”
“For most of us, stories feed our sense of what is possible,” she continued. That’s why “it’s important to put so many different shades of story” out there.
Wu hopes The Half of It has a similar reaction for queer Asian Americans, that “they’re going to feel seen for maybe the first time — or maybe the few times — in their life.”
The film stars Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu; Daniel Diemer as Paul Munsky; Alexxis Lemire as Aster Flores; and Collin Chou as Edwin Chu, Ellie’s dad.
The Half of It premieres on Netflix on May 1.
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RE: Netflix releass queer Asian American coming of age movie, The Half of It: The Half of It — recently won the main award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like Saving Face, the protagonist of this Netflix film also features a gay Chinese American woman, with various elements in the film pulled from Alice’s life.