Exploring Modern Dating Through the Lens of “Zoetic” (Part 2)

With the advancement of technology and shifting of social norms, modern romance has transformed in the 21st century. What does dating look like today for millennials straight out of college? For an older generation learning the ways of the internet? How does technology affect our relationships and the way we communicate? The team at Wong Fu Productions (Benson Quach, Christopher Yang, and Taylor Chan) as well as actress and director Julie Zhan tackled some of these questions in their projects “Dating After College” and “Zoetic.” We sat down together at the 2019 Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest where their works were being screened to delve in these topics and more. 

In the second installment of our two-part interview series, APA spoke with Julie (Director, Actress) and Benson (Assistant Director) about their short film “Zoetic,” which was a runner-up in the 2019 HBO Asian Pacific American Visionaries competition. The film centers around the relationship between Emma, a young Chinese-American woman, and her single mother, Jackie. Through the process of helping Jackie through the woes and joys of online dating, Emma discovers new ways to connect with her mother and communicate about love.

APA: I really like how “Zoetic” is a fresh take on modern dating. You never usually see it through the eyes of a 60-year-old single, Asian immigrant mother. You mentioned that it actually stemmed from your personal experience, asking your mom to try online dating. Did she see the film and what was her reaction to it?

Julie: [Laughs] Yes, I think we were all really excited and passionate about showcasing an Asian-American woman who’s older and making her the lead of the film and not just the mom. She plays the role of a mom, but it’s really about her love life. Actually Wes, the co-director, and I showed our moms at the same time at Wes’ house. We were really nervous and sweating, and they watched it next to each other. Afterwards Wes’ mom turned to me and said, “Oh, very good acting,” and my mom turned to Wes and said, “Oh, very good directing,” and that was it. That’s all they said. [Laughs] It definitely goes in line with how Asian moms don’t verbally express, but I like to believe they both took it to heart and processed it however they wanted to.

Benson: I think my brother showed it to my mom. I haven’t had a chance to talk to her about it. I should definitely go find out.

J: You should! I haven’t heard anything about your mom. Okay, that’s your homework.

APA: You also mentioned that some of the experiences your mom had in online dating is reflected in the scenes with Jackie. I like how there’s a role reversal between Emma and Jackie. Emma, the daughter, becomes the guardian/protector/guide. I wanted to hear your thoughts on that and how you decided to portray it.

J: I think we’re now at an age where we are becoming the parents. Spoiler alert, my mom is dating now, which is cool. I remember coming home one day, and there were red roses at my mom’s house, and I was the one who was like “Who are those from?” [Laughs] So I’m definitely being the protective one now. Those were actually real stories from my mom’s life about being scammed and weird 28-year-olds, so it definitely feels very weird as the daughter witnessing the dangerous world of strange men out there. Through technology I helped Google reverse image-search a guy who seemed sketchy, and it turned out he was using an actor from North Carolina’s pictures to catfish. So technology did help us find out.

APA: So did you also stalk your mom on a date?

J: I did not do that in real life. [Laughs] That was fictional. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

APA: I also wanted to talk about how “Zoetic” highlights the seven different types of love, especially philautia, self-love. Why was including this specifically important to the film?

B: I think the whole thing about being a mix between Cantonese and English and showing the translations – it’s very real, being first-generation born here versus having immigrant parents and that struggle to communicate. Again, talking about communication a lot. 

J: It is, and that’s a huge theme.

B: I think it’s like our way of telling them, their way of telling us, and our way of showing our unique Asian-American experience with a broader audience. So there’s a lot of layers.

J: I think that’s actually a really good theme. Why have we never talked about this? Benson, you’re so insightful. It is, it’s communicating, and that’s the juxtaposition of the Greek words, which shows so many more types of love than Chinese and Asian culture is used to. I think particularly with self-love, that’s something that our parents’ generation and older generations have never indulged in. It’s never about the self. It’s always “What am I doing for my family, my loved ones? Never think of yourself.” Specifically talking about Chinese culture, thinking of the self equals being selfish, which I think we were all taught is bad, and I wanted to show in this film, it’s not. It’s actually very important to take care of yourself so that you have the full capacity to love others.

APA: That was a very heart-felt conversation between Jackie and Emma at the end.

J: It’s rough to watch every time. It’s so vulnerable.

B: The film itself is an example of how difficult it is to communicate your feelings. Julie had to write a script, get it produced, fund it herself, just to say these little topics here. The film itself grew beyond the HBO contest, these film festivals. If anything, it’s just like you [Julie] said before, these are just love letters to our parents, our grandparents.

J: Wes feels the same way. This is a love letter to his mom, and I think that’s what resonated with him enough to come on board to do this. He’s like “I see my mom in this. I wanna say these things. I don’t know how, so – “

B: It could’ve been a simple text. We had to go out and make a film.

J: Spend months and money and all this stuff so that us Asian kids could tell the world the things we were too afraid to tell our moms.

APA: That’s a really interesting way to look at it. How did you feel acting that scene?

J: Tough. It was tough. This was in my mom’s house because a) budgetary reasons, and b) we wanted to stay authentic to the set, the environment, and my mom’s house had everything we needed. She was gracious enough to put our 20-person cast and crew in the living room, but I think she was secretly listening to this upstairs. It was like, again, this weird, long maze of “I’m trying to tell you this, but I’m gonna go make this film, and we’re shooting it, but you have to listen from upstairs.” [Laughs]

B: And the rest of the crew is all sitting on the floor, just outside of frame. A lot of them were sniffling to themselves and texting their parents during the scene.

J: It was really sweet. One of them didn’t get a chance to read the script, so it was his first time hearing that scene when we shot it for the first time. He started crying because he has a single mom, and a) he didn’t realize what the scene was until it happened, and b) he understood Cantonese, so it just kinda hit him. But that’s the best compliment. I think if we bring tears, then we’ve done our job.

APA: I also wanted to talk about technology. Again, prevalent in both of these films. It can often be seen as a barrier or a conduit for opening up conversations with others, especially between different generations. How do you think technology has affected the relationships between immigrant parents and their children?

J: You’re absolutely right. It can be used for evil or good. I think if we were just in our own separate worlds on our phones, it is a very disconnecting factor. Ironically, I asked my mom to try online dating as a way to connect with her because I found that even though we loved each other more than anything we couldn’t have any other conversations other than “How was your day?” It’s usually one-word answers and her telling me “Put on your jacket,” “Take off your jacket,” “Wash your hands,” “Go pee.” I was like, “How, as a grown woman, can I have a deeper conversation with my mom?” I felt like helping her in this aspect of her life might open up the door to other conversations, and it did. Once she allowed me to help her, she did confide in me and say things like “Hey, just got a message from a 28-year-old” or “Hey, do you think this poem is real?” I was able to help her. Through that, she shared a piece of herself with me I had never been able to access before so that is thanks to technology.

B: With YouTube and streaming media, I think it’s really cool. My mom is able to see old things she watched on TV as a kid, old singers and songs, so she can reconnect with her youth that way. My dad’s a huge sports guy, so he can go back and look at highlights on YouTube. They stumble upon things that I’m in, things that Wong Fu’s doing. I hear every now and then “Hey, we just saw that Lunch Break.” Also, my mom’s reconnected with some childhood friends from back in Vietnam, and that’s really cool to see. So there’s a role reversal happening from when we used to hear “Make sure you guys aren’t clicking any weird ads,” “Have a good password,” “Don’t get catfished,” “That’s a pyramid scheme.” All those different things we learned in high school and middle school we’re teaching to our parents.

JZ: That’s adorable. The role reversal is very apparent, especially in technology.

APA: Benson, having worked on both “Dating After College” and “Zoetic,” what is your take on modern dating in these two similar yet very different situations?

B: I was saving this joke, but I guess “Zoetic” would be “Dating Aaaafter College.” 

JZ: [Laughs] That’s good. Quote that.

B: It’s interesting, it’s definitely interesting. So we shot “Zoetic” a few months before “Dating After College”. It was a good warm-up, and the topics are so relevant today. I’ve been in a long-term relationship for quite a few years so I don’t have that experience, but hearing about it as an outsider to that world was very interesting.

J: It also goes to show you, it’s crazy no matter what age you are when trying online dating. The same things are happening to people in their 60’s as is for 20’s.

B: Obviously a big thing too – we touched on this in “Zoetic” – just be mindful of your safety and your whereabouts. Just because things might seem okay in a conversation, always look out for yourself. Tips for the future: if you’re going out on these dates, make sure somebody knows. If it’s your daughter, if it’s your friend –

J: Have them stalk you. [Laughs]

B: Just make sure somebody has your back as well. Always take your safety into consideration. 

APA: What do you hope viewers take away from “Zoetic”? You mentioned that it’s kind of a like a love letter to your mom. Do you want others to view it the same way?

J: Yes, I hope that for any other children of immigrant or Asian parents out there, where it’s hard to verbally communicate something vulnerable and deep, that this film could serve as an icebreaker for them to watch together, or it’ll just inspire them to be a little more vulnerable. I think it’s easier for our generation to reach out first, and then our parents’ generation will likely respond because we all want the same thing. 

Also, just to humanize moms because I think for so long I’ve seen my mom as just “my mom,” but there’s a whole human outside of being my caretaker: what her past was like, what her hopes and dreams are now. I just really hope that people see older women as more than just moms.

B: I always think about how we have a very unique place in this country, in this world. [For immigrants, they go] from feeling unwelcome even in their home back in Asia [and then they move away] to the United States. A lot of them had to keep their heads down – “Don’t cause a scene, don’t make an impact” – but we’re doing exactly the opposite of what they were told to do. It’s really cool that we’re in this position to be able to make that impact and have a voice and say, “Hey, we’re here to make a difference, we’re here to be part of the world.”


Read Part 1, a conversation with Benson, Christopher, and Taylor about their YouTube web series “Dating After College,” here.

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