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Smoked Fish: Using film to show the human toll of Anti-Asian hate crime

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By Eva Strnadova

We know that instances of anti-Asian hate crime rose during the Covid-19 pandemic. But what kind of trauma endures among families of Asian heritage? This is one question a forthcoming film titled Smoked Fish tries to answer.

Smoked Fish tells a story of a family of Chinese origin living in the United Kingdom. Excited to visit her granddaughter Jessie in London, Grandma Yu and Jessie’s mom travel to London. Then, they plan to go on a family trip to Scotland.

However, the plans are disrupted when grandma encounters a racially motivated attack on a London street, beaten to the ground and left with a swollen eye. The family struggles to deal with the emotional and physical trauma while helping each other go on with their daily life.

In this interview, writer and director, Jenny Xueer Wan, and producer Jia Zhou (Millie), talk about their reasons for making this film and share their personal experiences with anti-Asian hate crime in London.

Why is your film the right thing to do, and why now, when the debate about anti-Asian hate crime is already ongoing?

Jenny: I do not think it is the right thing to do. There are many ways to address this topic, and people with different talents and positions in society do all sorts of right things. The debate, to be honest, is not loud enough. Despite so many horrible incidents, the topic mainly stays in our community.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, and with so many horrible incidents happening, now feels like the right time. I read the story of a 76-year-old Chinese grandma who was punched in the face on a San Francisco street in March 2020. Left traumatised with a bleeding eye; she instinctively fought off the attacker with a wooden stick. That reminded me of my grandmother, who would have done exactly the same thing, which motivated me to write the story.

The film is a special contribution to the campaign ‘Stop Asian Hate-Crime’ due to our human take. We focus on one specific family and their story. It’s what we don’t see on the news, the story behind the doors – just a family, on their own, trying to overcome the shock and trauma. But it is also a story that will resonate with anyone regardless of race, ethnicity and cultural background. Because it looks at emotions and feelings that are universally recognized.

Sophie Gopsill as Grandma Yu and Taina Loumi Vez (Hair and Makeup Artist). Credit: Jenny Xueer Wan.

Jenny, why do you feel that film was the best tool to tell this story and highlight these issues?

Jenny: I have lived in the UK for ten years, and I have known that these things existed from the first year I came here. Even before I came to this country, I was warned that discrimination existed and that I should keep quiet and try my best to achieve something to earn my place here, and I have always done that. However, what had been happening made me realize that nothing’s going to change if we don’t speak up. So I wanted to do something. The only thing I know how to do is to make films.

Millie, how have you personally lived the increase in hate crimes towards people of East and Southeast Asian heritage since the start of the pandemic? What ultimately encouraged you to dedicate a film to this topic?

Millie: I heard about this phenomenon before I came to the UK. I had not personally experienced any anti-Asian hate crime before the pandemic, but I did in February when I went to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve with my friends. We were setting up fireworks within the permitted time and area. Suddenly, a man started chasing us and shouting racist words. At one point, we thought that he had a knife and he was close to me. That has been the scariest night for me since my arrival to the UK in 2016. Jenny’s script reflects my personal experience, and I felt an immediate connection to it.

How does the topic of racially motivated attack combine with the film’s main theme – the family?

Jenny: The victim is a grandma, and in Asian families, elders are greatly respected and have the most life experience, hence they are considered the strongest (not necessarily physically) in the family. The fact that the elderly are victims immediately makes it harder and more complicated for the family to deal with. Grandma being a victim sets the tone of the film. It makes it harder to talk about, to understand and it even makes other people in the family feel guilty.

How do the different meanings of family and family ties in East and Southeast Asia influence your film?

Jenny: Firstly, the film shows how the family deals with the incident. In Chinese culture, we do not talk about difficult things. We mainly speak about the good stuff. However, it is challenging not to address the incident featured in our film. It cannot be ignored because it is not a feeling; it is a physical injury. That is the most direct conflict, among many others, in the film.

Second, in China there is a saying that if your parents are still alive, you do not travel far away. If one was to travel far away, it has to be for a clear purpose. Jessie struggles between her ambitions to have a career in the UK and leaving her family back in China. The incident makes Jessie question the extent to which it is her fault, and if it was a mistake to choose to stay in this foreign country.

How does the film address traditionally family values and feminist independence?

Jenny: Jessie is very independent woman and very determined to get what she wants. She is ambitious, and she has a clear target, and she is not afraid to fight for it.

Grandma, on the other hand, believes in traditional values and keeps nagging Jessie about marriage. But in this case, grandma’s traditional value comes from her thinking that marriage is the right thing to do for anyone at Jessie’s age – anyone needs a family. If she had a grandson instead, she would be asking the same question.

Phoenix Zhao (Production Manager, Art Director), Jenny Xueer Wan (Director), Philippe Thuery (Cinematographer), Alfredo Arvalli (Script Supervisor), Pierluigi Papaiz (Sound Recordist and Sound Designer), Tobias Davies (1st AD). Credit: Jenny Xueer Wan.

Millie, you have led the distribution of more than 10 Chinese films in the UK and Ireland. How successful are Chinese films in the UK despite the cultural differences?

Millie: Chinese films in the UK remain a very niche market. The majority of successful Chinese films in the UK are blockbusters. Since the Chinese global influence increases, the niche market has the potential to become a big business. China aids films to feature abroad, and foreigners are increasingly interested in Chinese culture.

Our strategy for this film is going to A category international festivals. It all depends on the film’s completion time because most festivals only accept premieres of films they feature.

Smoked Fish is due to be released by the end of 2022. To find out more, visit the film’s fundraising webpage.

Featured image: From left to right, Tobias Davies (1st AD), Jenny Xueer Wan (Director), Jing Zhao (Production Designer), Luke Oliver (Steadicam Operator), Philippe Thuery (Cinematographer). Credit: Jenny Xueer Wan.

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