Cinema Asian American: Q&A With ‘Half-Life’s Jennifer Phang

When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Jennifer Phang’s genre-busting, science fiction family drama “Half-Life” caught the attention of many. With an innovative hybrid of animation and live action, and an intimate story that weaves together a vision of a dystopian future with sexual awakening and adolescence, the film introduces a distinctive and important new voice in American independent filmmaking,

Called “refreshingly entertaining and original” and “beautifully audacious” by IndieWire, “Half-Life” tells the story of how a teenage girl and her brother grapple with the mysterious disappearance of their aviator father, and their mother’s lustful relationship with a younger man. As chaos ensues around them, they are forced to take control of the world and reinvent everyone’s lives. A winner of awards at film festivals around the world, “Half-Life” can be seen this month on XFINITY On Demand.

Your film can be seen as a hybrid in many ways; it beautifully uses both live action and rotoscope animation and also blurs the boundaries between genres – science fiction, family drama, coming of age. It is not an easily film to categorize, and this seems intentional. Why?
JP: Some friends joked I was “a rebel,” but maybe that’s too easy a label. Put more simply, you could say I like films that keep surprising me by re-imagining a familiar reality. So with influences from Europe as well as Asia (artists like Kieslowski, Murakami, Miyazaki) and my love for magic realism, animation, surrealism and sci-fi, I really wanted allow for my own “genre” in a film that could capture my social and environmental concerns, but that also pushed artistic boundaries.

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At the core of “Half-Life” is a family that is struggling to stay together; a mother, daughter and son grapple with the mysterious disappearance of the father, all the while each of them is dealing with problems of their own, from sexual to existential. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what kind of questions you were thinking about as you wrote it?
JP: I was trying to explore characters whose life and world were in crisis and who longed to lose themselves in someone else or some place else. For one character this place is an animated world. Other characters are trying to escape their pain by revising the rules of their society. At some point the rules of the physical world start to bend, too. To pull all this off I had to experiment with film language and story and be a bit fearless about it. I was constantly looking for the best balance between humor, drama, “message” and magic.

“Half-Life” is set in an unspecified time period, and you have a very particular vision of how this time looks and feels. Amidst Northern Californian suburbs, we witness environmental chaos, global flooding, a young boy with possible telekinetic powers, and a world where reality and imagination might not be too far apart. How did you conceive of this world?
JP: It was meaningful for me to observe my optimistic little brother grow up in our media-saturated world. It made me wonder how he was reacting to the discovery of injustice and corruption, and it made me reflect on my own discovery of these things.

And maybe growing up in extremely different parts of the world had an influence on my vision. I share a connection with the ocean because I spent parts of my childhood around tropical islands and coral reefs while living in Malaysia. I think being in the “magical” natural world cemented my commitment to magic realism in storytelling. I saw my first whale in the wild when I was six and I’m pretty sure that was transformative.

I also might have taken a lot of thematic influence from novels and philosophical writing (I took a class in college called “Possible Futures”)…and Nikita Mikhalkov’s film “Burnt by the Sun” had a huge impact. As may be obvious in “Half-Life,” I had complicated reactions to growing up in a society that continuously contradicts its own codes of conduct on both micro and macro levels. It’s possible this resulted in these vivid recurring dreams about the world’s fate that I had and that I try to sort through in art and in this film…So it’s an ongoing effort to get viewers to experience the fears and the wonder that I feel sometimes.

Race, and bifurcated identities are central to the film. Many of your character are mixed race Asian Americans, others are adoptees and queer. Can you tell us why it was important to you to create characters with these particular backgrounds?
JP: I’ve been an outsider for most of my life. I don’t entirely fit in with any clearly labeled cultural, social, or ethnic group. Many people close to me are outsiders, and I felt that our stories needed a platform. So I thought, let’s try a story in which every character was negotiating their sense of belonging and trying to escape painful realities about themselves.

Tell us about your cast. It includes a number of familiar faces, as well as some new ones.
JP: Sanoe Lake was one of the most exciting things about “Blue Crush” for me and is just a real talent. For “Half-Life” she transformed herself from this bright and sunny model-actor-surfer into a troubled, haunted young woman. Julia Nickson was my powerhouse during production. She’s a master of her craft and channeled a complicated, flawed, ultimately desperate Asian-American woman, stubbornly holding on to love. A lot of people might remember her from “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” but in “Half-Life” she’s playing an American-born woman. Alexander Agate, who plays the young boy, was an amazing find by our casting director Zora Dehorter. He was so precocious and so much fun to work with. He took acting extremely seriously and looked up to Johnny Depp! Ben Redgrave is a talent I discovered through his incredible performance in the film “Straight Man.” He’s also a really interesting writer. The incredible Leonardo Nam has been in a lot of big films like “Perfect Score,” “Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” and “She’s Just Not that Into You.” He’s just a stellar actor who can really make a role his own. And many people will recognize the hilarious Susan Ruttan from “LA Law” and James Eckhouse from “Beverly Hills 90210.” They came up with a delightful interpretation of a conservative couple who have a strange way of putting things. Lee Marks was relatively new to film at the time and he handled so well all these nuances I needed for his character. He took real risks in all his scenes with Leo, and I’m so grateful he did.

Finally, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
JP: I’m working on this magic-real adventure-romance called “Look For Water.” It’s a script based on Dominic Mah’s original play, which we adapted at the Sundance Labs. It’s about two people in a relationship who literally lose sight of each other.

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

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