We are continuing our coverage of the Cinema Femme Showcase by featuring our interview with Jessica Liu about “Prom Time!”
Synopsis: Judy overhears her teen daughters recount their dating experiences while getting ready on prom night. Judy accidentally drugs herself with Chinese herbal medicine spiraling her into a gaudy sexual fantasy with the class hunk.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?
JESSICA LIU: There were a lot of inspirations. The first one was being Asian American. Being in the indie film world, I felt there was always a pressure to represent. I didn’t want to fit into that box where I only directed Asian American films, but I still felt like I owed it to myself to make a film personal to my identity as an Asian American.
It got me thinking about what does it mean to be specifically Chinese American. Is it all about the superficial things like Boba drinks and cute snacks? Or is it more about traditional things like Chinese medicine or different ways of thinking? Or will it be about how you’re raised, like if you have immigrant parents? That was the starting point, to show a female Chinese American experience, as well as even the other side, which is the hyper critical immigrant mother. I think we do see some of that in a lot of independent film, and we’re even starting to see in mainstream media. But we don’t delve into that type of person. What are her desires? Does she have desires and other layers to her? So I thought that would be kind of fun, and even funny to flip the script, to think of my mom who had a whole life before being a mom.
MARTIN: How did you bring together your cast, starting with the daughters? Are they supposed to be twins in the film?
LIU: The idea is that they are supposed to be fraternal twins, but they represent two parts of the mother character, Judy. They are nothing alike, but they are poetically fragmented parts of the mother. She’s critical towards one, and the other one is fine.
In terms of casting, Alice [Tsui] and Megan [Zhang] are not really related. The funny thing is that I first cast Alice who knew of Megan. They worked together, and are friends. That really helped a lot in terms of having that chemistry, and having that instant bond of being sisters, because they kind of poke fun at each other.
And casting Leann Lei as the lead was pretty awesome. I was struggling to find someone who would fit this role, especially in an age where she isn’t a young teenager, it’s a very specific age group. There’s always a lot of up and coming people, but we don’t know too much Asian American talent at that age. I looked within my own community, through actor’s groups, Facebook groups, and asking around with other filmmakers. I stumbled across Leann from another short film. I just really loved her performance. I felt she was really fitting for the role. I was able to reach out to her on Facebook, and she connected me with her manager. We set things up from there. I really love working directly with casting. I never worked with a casting director yet, but I love that process.
MARTIN: You play a lot with voice-over through the mother intertwined with the dialogue of the daughters. Voice-over is not usually encouraged when you write a script, but in this case, I feel it totally works.
LIU: Thank you for pointing that out. Growing up, my mom would always have her own philosophies and quotes. I even put some of them in the movie, like “never love someone more than they love you.” All of these things she said would sometimes pop up in the back of my head. I really liked utilizing voice-over even though I heard of that saying too. Like limit your voice-over in scripts, but I guess I just wanted to showcase the duality of not only these two languages, but her identity of being a person of color that is American, and just the duality of that existence. Like she has all of these thoughts in her head in her Chinese language. But in real life, she talks in English to her kids. I think that was kind of fun to play with, also the overlapping voice-overs at times where her voice becomes the daughter’s voice, and so on.
I had that idea through the mechanism of one of the themes of cross generational desire and trauma, and questioning what gets passed down, even beyond what we can see, on a metaphysical level. I had read an article during that time that basically showed how, especially for females, the eggs of your grandmother would be passed down through your mother. And the mother’s eggs passed down through her daughters. It made me think of what my mother went through. You can kind of feel that in your heart, even if you can’t explain it. It was cool to put that in a dreamlike state, a slightly perverse parent trap situation.
MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your film?
LIU: I’m definitely open to the idea of people bringing in their own perspectives. I’ve gotten various feedback which has made me very happy from previous screenings. Even having a mother come up to me and thank me for making the film, and saying that she wants to watch it with her own daughter. And just from my experience, a lot of women seem to enjoy this movie. I hope people will leave seeing their mothers in various layers, and not always thinking of them at face value. There’s something interesting about each and every one of us.
MARTIN: Everyone who I’ve spoken to loves this film, and these are people from all over the world. I do feel a story like this one translates and connects with people on a deeper level.
LIU: Thank you. In the early stages of making the film, I definitely felt this was such a specific and personal film that I had some trepidation to tell it. I was worried that no one would understand it. After coming full circle, it really helps me to think of a piece of advice. A film becomes universal to us all, the more specific you get with your story. That’s really touching, and just shows that we all have a core of humanity.
MARTIN: Anything you’d like to add?
LIU: I would like to thank everyone involved from the cast and the crew to just anyone who helped me along the way. It was not only a personal story, but a very independent project that was self-financed and would not have happened without people that believed in me. I really just thank everyone who supported the project.
LIVE Q&A moderated by filmmaker Patricia Vidal Delgado (“La Leyenda Negra”) on 2/20 at 11 AM PST / 2 PM EST.