Cinema Asian America: Joy Dietrich’s ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’

Tie A Yellow Ribbon,” the feature debut film from New York filmmaker Joy Dietrich makes its VOD premiere this month on XFINITY On Demand. A powerful and intimate film, it gives a rare view into the emotionally complex interior of young Asian-American women, including a Korean adoptee who needs to come to terms with her damaged past.

Estranged from her family due to a childhood indiscretion with her brother, the film’s protagonist, Jenny Mason, seeks to regain a sense of home by exploring ties with the Asian-Americans she meets in her new apartment building, until suddenly, her brother shows up at the door, stirring up long lost feelings that she has tried to bury.

The winner of a Special Jury Prize for Directing at the CineVegas Film Festival, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” is “engrossing and poignant” (Variety) and a features a significant new cinematic voice.

Your film looks at the intersecting lives of several young Asian-American women, who are each, in their own way, battling with questions of belonging and self-image. In addition to being an incredibly crafted and beautifully shot film, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” has a strong message too. Why did you make the film?
JD: When I was growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I hardly ever saw films or TV shows with characters that looked like me. I was also the only student of Asian descent in my high school. So just think of what that does to your self-image – of never having anything to reference to or relate to. Did you know that young Asian-American woman have one of the highest rates of suicide in this country? So I wanted to make a film that addressed the issues facing young Asian-American women, stereotypes, warts and all, and not particularly in a setting of an ethnic enclave or about an immigrant family’s experience. The setting is the greater American society. It was also important for me to reach out to the wider audience, to say that this is a film about the universal search for love and belonging. It just happens that the main characters are Asian-American.

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Your film’s main protagonist, Jenny Mason, is a Korean-American adoptee, who has a complex relationship with her past, her family and thus herself. Can you tell us a bit about how you created this character? You yourself are an adoptee; did you draw from personal experience to create her?
JD: The secret is that I created all the characters in the film from my own personal development, even the male characters. But yes, Jenny, has the closest biographic characteristics as an adoptee. Though her storyline and plot is purely fictional, her psychological experience of intense disconnectedness and rootlessness closely mirrored mine when I was in my teens and 20s.

There are growing numbers of documentaries about adoption being made, however, very few narrative films on the subject, or at least, featuring characters who have this background. Despite such high rates of adoption in the U.S., there does not seem to be a comparable level of popular discourse. Why?
JD: You’re right. The experiences of adoptees are almost always portrayed in documentary form. And those few narratives that do have adoptee characters (like Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow”) kind of self-consciously review it, like “oh, by the way, I’m an adoptee,” and the character gets a reassuring hug for a couple of seconds and then we forget about it. I’m very appreciative that ITVS (Independent Television Service), the primary backer of my film, took the risk to let me tell a fuller story of the complex psychological journey of an adoptee.

Tell us a bit about your film’s title, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon.” What kind of reference does it make?
JD: I get asked this a lot and a lot of people think the title is misleading to the style and content of the film. I don’t usually like to explain things that should be up to you to interpret. All I can say is that it refers to a very American thing to do and the act of tying a yellow ribbon is about remembrance and showing respect to the one you love.

The film has a wonderful texture and visual quality, and much of this comes from the many locations and geographies which the film is set in. Can you tell us a bit about the places and locations in the film, and how you came to use them?
JD: We shot all around the greater New York City area: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey. My team and I made this film on a very tight budget, so we depended on friends and family’s apartments a lot. It was a wild and crazy shoot. Sometimes locations came in the day before or on the day itself. For example, one morning when I arrived on set, my whole crew was lounging around on a Harlem sidewalk with tons of equipment. Apparently the co-op board had thrown us out. So we scrambled around looking for another place for Jenny’s bedroom that day. Same thing happened for Jenny’s yellow field dream scenes. We were a small breakaway crew that took off for New Jersey in a white minivan and miraculously found the two field scenes that very day. Then of course, there were the subway scenes…. Well, I’d better not go into that. You’ve got to love guerilla filmmaking!

What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
JD: I’d like to make the last segment of a trilogy of adoption-themed films. This one is a documentary called “The Attachment Project.” Do you know of anyone who would finance it?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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