Alice Wu’s ‘The Half of It’ a refreshing, diverse story on and off screen

The Half Of It (which made its Netflix debut on May 1) currently holds a high rating of 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but did you know that it is a story of an Asian American lesbian teenager and it is both directed and written by an Asian American woman?

A statistic from Annenberg Inclusion Initiative back in 2017 showed that among the top 100 grossing films across 10 years, only 34 were directed by Asians, and of those, only three were directed by Asian women. This data looks at films between 2007 and 2016 showing that little had changed between those years.

This could be partially due to the attitude Asian parents have towards their kids going into less stable careers, such as directing. The stereotype of Asian American children being encouraged to go into more traditional and hirable majors at college isn’t there without reason. But this still shows the painful lack of diversity in Hollywood. 

Enter director Alice Wu with her two features: Saving Face (2004) and The Half Of It (2020). And yes, that’s quite a big gap in time between the release of her two films, but it’s not because of the usual reason where women have difficulties getting funding for their second feature. After her first feature, she picked up a number of jobs in Hollywood including a planned series about women in the tech industry. A health scare from her mother led her to immediately leave for San Francisco, where she would end up staying for a few years. After her mother recovered, Wu began writing again.

Wu didn’t originally set out to be a director or a screenwriter. The latter may have been an idea he considered for retirement, but certainly not a career. She attended M.I.T. at 16 and completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s at Stanford. After graduation she landed herself a job in software engineering at Microsoft. But boredom led her to write in her free time. She gave herself five years and what started out as an attempt to write a novel as a hobbyist ended up with Wu taking screenwriting classes, completing a script and starting production.

In the early 2000s, the only Hollywood film with a Chinese-American cast that most would remember was The Joy Luck Club from back in 1993. This is until Wu released her first feature film Saving Face in 2004 (read our 2005 interview with Wu here). The whole concept behind her first feature was about the importance of not embarrassing, or “losing face” of one’s family—a concept that is traditionally ingrained in Chinese families. Across multiple generations, Wu’s self-written and directed film brings up topics of being gay and having children out of wedlock. Having put this story on the screen, Wu was way ahead of her time. In fact, the next big budget film starring an Asian cast would have to wait until 2018, when Crazy Rich Asians was released (have a read about our review of this movie when it first came out!)

The Half Of It also has an Asian lesbian lead, but the story is set in a high school and focuses on the coming-of-age genre. It stars Leah Lewis as “Ellie Chu”, Daniel Diemer as “Paul Munsky”, and Alexxis Lemire as “Aster Flores.” Smart but shy Ellie is approached by high school jock Paul to help him woo his crush. The film shows the sweet and nostalgic twists and turns of teenage emotions as Ellie comes to realize that she is also in love with the same girl. 

For Wu, the location of the film is a character in itself. This fictional town on the outskirts of Washington is a representation of a conservative community that provides an environment to tell the nuanced everyday experiences of homophobia, racism, and sexism that has risen since Trump’s election. There are many endearing moments of reflection between the teenagers and what questions they may have when it comes to sexual orientation, religion, and their futures. I feel that the film runs on the same initial setup throughout—there aren’t any complex developments or twists, but the characters are very likable. Although I would have liked to see speedier changes from the midpoint onward, I appreciate that the film reflects how dreary and confusing it feels to be a teenager when it seems the environment dictates your future.

Wu doesn’t try to create perfect stories – she chooses to write the stories that are “truest” to her and to not think about what an audience may think because it’s impossible to create one piece of work that everyone would connect to. The topics she tackles reflect perspectives that are unconventional and barely seen on screen, and she hopes that with each movie that is made, more and more studios will be willing to finance the next films.

© Katusha Jin (05/19/2020) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Leah Lewis and Alexxis Lemire

Middle Photo: Alice Wu directing The Half Of It

Bottom Photo: Alice Wu and Leah Lewis

Photo Credits: KC Bailey / Netflix

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Katusha Jin
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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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