Taking the Lead with HBO’s 2021 APA Visionaries Short Film Competition

When HBO presented the theme of “Taking the Lead” for its fifth APA Visionaries short film competition, countless hopefuls submitted their films. The top three chosen were awarded with cash prizes and the opportunity to license and premiere exclusively on HBO and HBO Max starting Monday, September 27th. While all taking on the theme of the year, each of these three short films tells a different story.

Coming in third place was Little Sky, a heart-wrenching story told by Jess X. Snow about a Chinese American drag queen named Sky (played by Wo Chan), who was unaccepted and shunned by their traditional Chinese father. The film follows Sky seeking “belonging” through dark tones and slow, melancholic music. Viewers go along with Sky and their new friend Miyo (played by Kyoko Takenaka) as they spend the night facing demons of the past and finding self love. Despite the discouraged demeanor Sky has throughout most of the movie, the film ends on an optimistic note, with Sky and Miyo performing a soulful duet, highlighting the lyrics of, “if no one sees our light, we’ll still see each other’s.”

The emotional story reminds viewers that the Asian American queer community is oftentimes not accepted by their older relatives and peers. For those who may not have realized these struggles, it can be an eye-opening story. And for those who are already aware or who have gone through this themselves, it can be a reminder that they are not alone.

Directed by Jesse Gi, the second place film, Neh, is about a second generation Korean American trying to stay connected to his Asian heritage and culture. The film begins with the protagonist, Billy (played by Joon Lee), on a date at a Korean restaurant. His idea is to impress his date, Carol (played by Katherine Smith-Rodden), by ordering in Korean, despite not being anywhere near fluent in the language. Unfortunately, the date doesn’t go as planned.

The short film had several funny moments to keep viewers engaged, but, it felt like it lacked cohesion to make the story fit perfectly together as there was a major plot hole to consider. Ultimately, Neh focuses on the identity crisis so many young second generation Asian Americans experience, having been told to be “more American” while growing up, but also being criticized for not embracing Asian culture enough. While the message is simple and clear, it was done in a light-hearted manner that felt like it only grazed the surface of the issue.

Artfully crafted Unmothered, directed by Urvashi Pathania, took the grand first prize with an impactful telling of an almost-autobiography. The film is about an Indian American college student, Priyanka (played by Sharayu Mahale), who travels to India to help her family scatter her mother’s ashes. When she learns the secret behind her mother’s death, she confronts her family who all offer the same reasoning: they did not want to distract her from her studies in college. This sets off a series of conflicts between Priyanka and her family, and struggles with self identity also emerge as her family’s traditional Indian views clash with her progressive Western views. In a well-depicted symbolic moment to end the film, Priyanka tosses her mother’s ashes, as if she is tossing away all the previous troubles she has gone through with her relatives and her inner turmoil.

The story presents the perfect mixture of serious and humorous scenes, knowing just when to cheer the audience up with a chuckle, and crash them back down with a tear-jerking moment. Even with minimal dialogue, the film succeeded in developing the a connection between Priyanka and the audience. With a touching inspired-by-a-true-story tale and fantastic cinematography that takes viewers through the streets of India alongside the protagonist, it’s no surprise Unmothered was the winning film.

Despite all sharing a theme, Little Sky, Neh, and Unmothered took us on very different paths as we followed the three protagonists on their journeys. From empathizing with Sky and the challenges they face in learning self-love, to laughing with Billy as he struggles to connect with his Korean heritage, to Priyanka turning her grief into fighting spirit. These three films excel in showing that Asian characters can be so much more than just the side character. In these three films, the Asian characters are protagonists who are full of personality. All three short films are available now on HBO Max, and they’re definitely worth the watch.

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