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Asian VR Filmmakers Explore Stories of Identity at Tribeca

By Xintian Wang

In a whirlwind of creativity and culture, the Tribeca Festival came alive this year, showcasing an array of Asian and Asian American creators who transported audiences into immersive worlds of films and games. Amidst the captivating lineup, three remarkable Asian visionaries emerged: Michaela Ternasky-Holland, Poulomi Basu, and Maja Bodenstein (马丫儿). 

Their films are Ternasky-Holland’s exploration of grief in REIMAGINED VOL. II: MAHAL to Basu’s empowering journey in Maya: The Birth (Chapter 1), and Bodenstein’s epic portrayal of female leader Cheng Shih in The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend (starring Lucy Liu).

These extraordinary storytellers harnessed the captivating power of virtual reality, leaving audiences spellbound. What’s more, in the Tribeca Immersive Competition, The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend won the Storyscapes Award, and Maya: The Birth (Chapter 1) won the New Voices Special Mention.

AsAmNews sat down with these brilliant creators to talk about how their cultural backgrounds influence their films.

Maya the Birth Chapter

Confront Taboos and End Period Poverty.

Basu’s interactive film Maya: The Birth (Chapter 1) is a deeply personal and political exploration of womanhood, shame, and empowerment. As a South Asian woman who left home at an early age, Basu created this film to depict a complex web of patriarchy that women have to live within and structure their entire existence.

The story embarks on the journey of Maya, a typical young woman of the 21st century, as she evolves into a remarkable female superhero whose abilities stem from menstruation. When Maya experiences her first menstrual cycle, her life takes an unexpected twist as she confronts the oppressive customs of her conservative family and discovers a realm of concealed shame, stigma, and taboo lurking within modern-day London. The name “Maya,” derived from Sanskrit, encapsulates notions of enchantment and illusion, adding a touch of magic to her compelling story.

Poulomi Basu
Tribeca. Poulomi Basu

“From the time your period starts and you’re transitioning from becoming a young girl to a woman, that’s where all the violence and all the imposition of rules and restrictions begin in a girl’s life,” says Basu. “Therefore, the cycle of shame, stigma, taboo forms violence, right up until the age she reaches menopause. For me, I felt like a period, which is the single most thing that moves the human race forward, is shockingly still such a big taboo and shame. But in certain societies from my part of the world, it becomes such a weaponization against women’s bodies, which are like sites of political warfare.”

Basu’s own experiences, coupled with the stories of marginalized women she encountered throughout her artistic career, inform the narrative. She seeks to challenge the societal taboos surrounding menstruation, period poverty, and violence against women. In Basu’s research, women spent around $250 to $300 every year on period products. For women coming from marginalized communities, this burden becomes even worse. She hopes her film Maya: The Birth can also raise awareness of period poverty and embrace women’s sexual awakening.  

“Women might end up spending $18,000 to $20,000 on period products in their entire lives in today’s America. No matter where in the world you go, period poverty is real. Taboo and shame are real, it doesn’t matter where you came from. This is an important piece for not only Asian Americans but people around the world,” says Basu. 

Through virtual reality, Basu hopes the audience can experience Maya’s isolated journey to womanhood. “VR is an isolating tech that doesn’t allow for collective experience, and so it is the isolation women feel when they’re subject to these exiles,” says Basu. “It has the power to collapse space and time, and bring in audiences from a variety of walks of life to be engaged and activated in the same way.”

Poster for The Pirate Queen- A Forgotten Legend shows an image of a pirate ship
Tribeca. The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend

Retell the Epic Tale of Chinese Woman Leader Cheng Shih.

The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend, recounts the untold tale of an extraordinary woman Cheng Shih in 19th-century China, who rose to become one of history’s most formidable pirates. After the sudden death of the fleet’s leader, Cheng Shih, now a widow, confronts the imminent threat of losing her position, safety, and even her very existence.

In this exciting and immersive virtual reality adventure, renowned actress Lucy Liu took center stage as both the executive producer and the voice behind the iconic pirate figure, Cheng Shih. Through assuming the role of Cheng Shih, players embark on a thrilling journey, solving intricate puzzles, outsmarting adversaries, and ultimately ascending to the revered title of the “Pirate Queen.” 

Maja Bodenstein 马丫儿, writer of the VR game The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend, says that the story was inspired by her childhood experience in Hong Kong. “I have always been aware of Cheng Shih’s incredible story growing up: how a flower boat girl of obscure origins maneuvered her way into leading the largest pirate fleet in the world, at a time when up to half of all Chinese women still had bound feet. Her story has long been overdue for telling, and I can only assume that the grand scale of it made it difficult in the past – something that we were able to circumnavigate through VR,” says Bodenstein.  

Bodenstein hopes that this story can broaden people’s perception of China during that time in history and challenge their preconceptions of pirates. Bringing this captivating chapter of South China Sea history to a broader audience is an incredibly exhilarating opportunity for the production team, especially considering the current surge of significant Asian American representation in film and television. 

“Having Lucy on board is a dream come true. She’s a trailblazer who has consistently defied expectations throughout her career, breaking free from Asian stereotypes in her acting and expanding into producing and directing. Her accomplishments are incredibly inspiring. I have no doubt that her hard work has played a role in the emergence of more multifaceted representations of characters of AAPI descent today,” says Bodenstein. 

Bringing forth this captivating chapter from the history of the South China Sea to a broader audience is an incredibly thrilling opportunity, says the production team. They hope to further contribute to the growing visibility and representation of Asian Americans in media.

Poster for Reimagined Volume II - Mahal

Explore Grief and Reconnect with Filipino Heritage.

Ternasky-Holland’s VR project, “REIMAGINED VOL. II: MAHAL,” serves as a heartfelt love letter to her late father and an exploration of her Filipino heritage. Growing up as a mixed-race Filipino American, Ternasky-Holland’s connection to her cultural roots was shaped by her immigrant mother’s experiences and her interactions with her Filipino grandparents. Through this VR project, she embarked on a journey of self-discovery and embraced her Filipino heritage more authentically.

“MAHAL is a love letter to my father, who died in a car accident. As a non-fiction storyteller, I have always been more at ease working alongside collaborators to bring their stories to life. Through this creative process, I have been forced to confront my own lifelong journey with grief,” says Ternasky-Holland.

RELATED: Reimagined Volume II: Mahal Volume II is a reimagined storyelling experience

Ternasky-Holland’s personal encounter with grief form the core of “Mahal,” the Tagalog word for love. The story transcends time and space, asking profound questions about the universal experience of grief and the healing power of raw emotions. By drawing inspiration from Philippine mythology and the diverse cultural heritage of the Philippines, Ternasky-Holland aims to foster a sense of connection and ownership for Filipinos across the diaspora.

Michaela Ternasky-Holland smiles broadly
Tribeca. Michaela Ternasky-Holland

“For me, Mahal is a story of how love comes at a cost, because it centers around grief, which is both a unique and universal experience,” says Ternasky-Holland. “There is a lot to unpack in the trauma and strife in the divisive Asian v. Asian American narratives, but I think the beauty of storytelling is that it shows us that our emotions are often universal. Grief is a tangible part of being both Filipino and Filipino-American.”

Ultimately, Ternasky-Holland believes that grief is not a singular idea. Through this interactive experience, she hopes the audience can reconsider the question of “what would happen in our world if we allowed ourselves and others to express depression, numbness, guilt, anger, and loneliness outside of the construct of time and space?”

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