Alice Wu: Practical Person, Adamant Artist
When Alice Wu ditched a promising TV project with American Broadcasting Company in 2009, dropped everything in Los Angeles and left for San Francisco after her mother fell ill, she thought filmmaking was behind her. It was five years after her movie debut Saving Face, a critically acclaimed Sony Pictures production and influential film within the Asian American community. At age 39, the Microsoft computer scientist-turned filmmaker thought her 40s would be about returning to her family.
But the industry drew her back eventually. With the release of the coming-of-age romcom The Half Of It on Netflix May 1, Wu returned with her second film after 15 years. Wu just turned 50 a month ago.
The film sets in a small conservative town called Squahamish, Washington. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a bookish teenager living with her Chinese immigrant dad, is a high school social outcast. The only connections she has with her classmates are through her essay-writing business through which she earns extra to support her family. When Ellie’s writing skills are eyed on by the lunkheaded jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) who tries to woo his crush Aster (Alexxis Lemire) by writing her love letters, Ellie slowly embroils herself in kinds of relationships she has never had before with both others and herself.
While it is easy to dismiss the film as a teen movie, the unexpected twists make the conventional high school love story into something else. Widely described as a 21st century Cyrano de Bergerac, the point of The Half Of It is however not about getting the girl. Ellie is not the die-hard chivalrous romantic Cyrano the protagonist is; and as alluring as it is to watch her budding relationship with Aster, her unusual comradeship with Paul complicates the characters’ dynamic and is likewise enticing. It is not the kind of story in which growth is achieved through overcoming challenges posed by an antagonist, if they exist, and all main characters are likable in their own way. It is a love triangle story reconfigured in which no one succeeds; it is a coming-of-age story expanded where each and every wins.
In a lot of ways Ellie’s story mirrors that of Wu’s. A first generation Asian American, Wu was born into a Taiwanese immigrant family in San Jose, California. Highly scholastic, she enrolled in MIT at the age of 16 and after two years, transferred to Stanford University where she received her B.S. and master’s degree in computer science. Wu came out to herself in her senior year of college, during which she had developed a however unlikely friendship with a straight white guy with whom Wu described there was everything but sexual attraction. Struggling to pinpoint the type of their relationship, Wu infused these frustrations into this film that came 30 years later. Although the idea of the film has long been twirling on the back of Wu’s mind, it did not materialize until a $1000 check donation to the National Rifle Association scared Wu out of the writer’s block and procrastination.
To Wu, writing is something personal and emotional. A hardcore computer scientist, self-taught long-form improviser and self-proclaimed fan of low expectations, being a filmmaker is the last thing on Wu’s agenda, if not coincidental. She never thought the script of Saving Face, which she wrote at a screenwriting night class, would actually get made — and with producers such as Will Smith. Centering a young Chinese-American lesbian who juggles between the conflicting ideas of being true to herself and her filial duty, the story was intended for her mother, who reacted badly when Wu came out to her. At the turn of the century when Hollywood had not capitalized on diversity and Asian American cinema barely existed — not to mention queer Asian American films — Alice Wu embraced the freedom from the anonymity. “I never really thought about the oppression of fitting in before,” says Ellie in her letter ghostwritten for Paul to Aster in response to her frustration about peer pressure and fitting in. “The good thing about being different is that nobody expects you to be like them.”
Wu’s sincerity also comes through in Ellie’s layered characterization. From being the teacher’s favorite and the only Asian girl in school, to being a lesbian and atheist in the predominantly white and Christian community, Ellie’s outsider position is as complex as relationships in real life can be. Her unexpected journey of exploration of the meaning of love is peppered with cute and relatable details — that all she does when the girl who she has a crush on undresses in front of her is turns around and asks if that is a deciduous tree. There isn’t quite enough vocabulary to precisely describe their relationship. It requires boldness to imagine its myriad forms and marvelous possibilities.
The attempt to make the central character non-white and non-straight was not met without resistance, particularly 15 years ago. However, as a free-floating filmmaker with the safety net as a Microsoft program manager at the time, Wu was stubborn about what she made and how she made it. “I said ‘no’ a lot,” said Wu laughing, recalling her interactions with studios and producers, many of whom had asked Wu to change her characters’ ethnicity to white. “I can write about white stuff. I grew up in an environment like that. But can they write me?”
For however tempting it is to see Wu’s uncompromising artistic integrity as idealist, Wu regards herself as the exact opposite. “I am hyper practical,” said Wu at the Stanford Alumni Arts virtual discussion May 18. Stressing filmmaking is expensive and even a bad investment, Wu said she only pursues a project when she is really passionate about it. Besides, although Wu’s body of work only consists of two films, Wu said she has kept the habit of always writing something to herself. It is not mere coincidence that her films won awards from numerous festivals and gained such popularity from fans and critics alike.
But in the end, both of Wu’s films are commercial dramedies too formally orthodox to elicit discussions on deeper meaning and she well recognized it. When asked why The Half Of It is set in high school, Wu said she did not start by thinking the film as a teen movie but about people in general. There are things universal to humans across all ages, and it shouldn’t matter who is watching to feel them, but the emotional turmoil normally associated with experiences in high school made it an appealing ground for the story that only has a limited run time. “I wrote a movie which happens to have teenagers in it,” Wu said.
Alice Wu has been talking to the media non-stop since the film’s release on Netflix May 1. Podcasts, discussion panels, art programs, and who knows how many other interviews, all in her all-too-familiar study in her San Francisco home. A bookshelf framed right to a fireplace, the predominant white hue from the background and sunlight casting from one side, colored by photo frames and decorations. She is always in the same position at the same angle in every virtual interview and speaks with consistent clarity, vigor and humor behind her large black-framed glasses and thick side bangs that leaves one with a sense of mystery and wonderment. It is easy to forget she is 50.