by Erin Chew
The Sandlot, Stand by Me, Eighth Grade and Boyhood, are examples of well-known teenage coming-of-age films which inspired Sean Wang’s directorial debut film Dìdi (弟弟). At the film’s world premiere at Sundance, Wang mentioned that while the aforementioned films inspired his creativity, he wanted to see one where a Taiwanese American teenager was the central protagonist.
“I grew up watching films such as The Sandlot, Stand by Me, Eighth Grade and Boyhood and they really defined my teenage years and the issues I went through. However, I didn’t see myself in these films in terms of my ethnicity and skin color, and that is what I projected into writing and directing Dìdi, so that every other Taiwanese and/or Asian American teenager can see themselves reflected, feel seen and heard,” Wang said.
The title of the film Dìdi (弟弟), means little brother. It is often used as a term of endearment in Mandarin-speaking families, where parents and grandparents would call their son/grandson “didi.” A very meaningful title for a film centered on the life of a Taiwanese American teenager, struggling with his family values and identity.
The film stars Izaac Wang (Raya and the Last Dragon, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Gremlins: Secrets of Mogwai) as the awkward teenage protagonist Chris Wang. His traditional, loving and overprotective mother, Chungsing Wang, played by the legendary actress Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks, Judge Dredd), struggles to understand why her son is distant from her and always angry and sad. With an absent father in the picture, working and financially supporting the family from Taiwan, Vivian Wang, played by Shirley Chen (Krista, Quiz Lady, Wake Up) is the assertive older sister who has a love/hate relationship with her dìdi, and their Nai Nai, played by Sean Wang’s actual grandmother Chang Li Hua is the unofficial boss and matriarch which rounds out the Wang family.
For Izaac, playing the primary protagonist Chris, was such a great opportunity. Still a teenager himself, most people would have seen Izaac grow up in the television and film scene. As an almost young adult, Izaac discussed with AsAmNews how playing Chris was a way for himself to reminisce his young teenage years – which mind you was only a few years ago for this young up and coming actor.
“I may be biased, but in my opinion, Dìdi is one of the best coming-of-age movies,” he said. “If you think about it, a story about someone trying to figure out who they are, where they belong and with whom they can spend time with, is a story I believe most people can relate with. It is also an example for other Asian American teens to feel their voices and their stories are heard. I remember when I was thirteen, I too had some finding to do- so I hope this can tell other thirteen-year-old teenage boys that they are not alone in how they feel.”
Playing the traditional, overbearing and overprotective Asian mother came so naturally to Joan Chen. A person who requires no introduction due to her legendary status, Chen said that playing Chungsing was kind of her way of getting motherhood redemption. It was a role that challenged her personally as well as her values. As someone who has had a successful career in Hollywood and in Mainland China, Joan said playing a character so real, reminiscent of many Asian and Chinese immigrant mothers and one who struggled to understand her own children was not easy but a role she saw as absolutely rewarding.
“When Sean approached me to play the role of the mother, I wasn’t sure whether this was something for me or a role which would suit me. After we met online initially, and I had the chance to read the script – I just fell in love with it. I knew that this was my motherhood redemption. It was a solid script that was familiar, yet different, where each character, including Chungsing, grows into a more enlightened person,” Chen stated in an interview with AsAmNews.
Shirley Chen, who plays Vivian, is the older sister who is on the cusp of leaving home and entering college. A very strong and assertive young woman, her relationship with her didi and the rest of the family is tumultuous. Shirley discussed with AsAmNews, how her character is the daughter and the sister who is expected to be responsible and take care of her younger sibling, and be the example he can follow.
“The film is basically about a Taiwanese American teenager finding out who he is and stumbling in his search for identity. He loves skateboarding, he wants to fall in love and he wants to belong somewhere. My character as his older sister is to help push him along this journey and ensure he doesn’t make a mess of his life. Despite the light and day relationship, Vivian cares for her younger brother and really at the end becomes his biggest support and cheerleader, even through his most difficult times”.
Dìdi featured actors who have some to extensive experience and infamy, it also had performances from new up-and-coming actors, where this film was their first time acting. This in many ways is like passing on the baton to a new generation of actors who will ensure the movement for better representation and visibility becomes normalized. Mahaela Park, who plays Chris’ love interest Madi in the film spoke about how working in this film gave her purpose, and she learned so much from being a part of this film – it was basically real-life training for her, who had no prior credits or experience in acting.
“I guess I am quite lucky. The role for Madi was a casting call I actually saw on Instagram, and I applied for it, never thinking I would even get a call back. When playing Madi, I was a blank sheet of paper, and I learned so much from those like Sean, Izaac, Shirley and Joan on how I could shape my character. This story is authentic, as it shows what our lives as Asians in the US is really like – we have struggles, challenges and face a no way out situations just like everyone else,” Park told AsAmNews.
Finally, writer and director Sean Wang told AsAmNews that he wrote this film for all the other teenagers like himself, who wished they saw themselves reflected in a film about growing up. To premiere at Sundance was a dream he never thought would happen and now that it has, he hopes it will help more in contributing to the movement for authentic Asian stories to be seen on the world stage.
“Growing up in the Bay Area, this is the story I have always wanted to tell. And now I have that opportunity. My dream was to just get a good movie out, being able to premiere at Sundance for the world to see came after and it is incredible that I am on this platform. I wanted to tell a story which was a version of my own story – a Taiwanese American boy growing up and going through the ups and downs all teenage boys experience. As Asian Americans, we do not live different lives – we are regular Americans, who encounter regular life struggles. This to me is what authenticity means and I hope this type of storytelling will continue to be told”.
Dìdi had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival on January 19 as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition category.
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