Sundance highlight White Rabbit is the rare truly intersectional film about LA artists and adult friendship. Director Daryl Wein and breakout star Vivian Bang discuss writing the film together and telling stories off the beaten path.
“I just, for once, wanted to show an Asian-American female with all these complexities,” said Vivian Bang, the co-writer and star of Daryl Wein’s White Rabbit, which premiered at Sundance in January and was one of the festival’s major highlights. “She’s a real person. That’s never shown in American movies with a lot of women of colour. I feel like Issa Rae is doing a rad job with HBO. But as far as Asian American actors, we rarely get a chance to play a character who is so authentic, with faults, and the hero.”'As Asian American actors, we rarely get a chance to play a character who is so authentic, with faults, and the hero.' - Vivian BangClick To Tweet
The film centres around Sophia (Vivian Bang), a struggling artist by night and a Task Rabbit by day, to pay the bills. She’s a Korean-American lesbian in her thirties, navigating the confusing waters of adult friendship, getting her voice heard, and the trauma of being surrounded by white spaces and faces. When she’s faced with the opportunity to collaborate with a white film director who is obsessed with her race and immigration status, Sophia staunchly insists that she’s American. But when Sophia befriends Victoria (Nana Ghana), who is herself an immigrant, Sophia reveals that she was born in Korea and raised in the US, which can sometimes make her feel caught in between two cultures.
As Wein put it, “Our movie is very intersectional. The film is trying to draw attention to this systemic problem of underrepresentation of people of colour.” Sadly, it’s the kind of film that we only ever really see turn up at Sundance, and there’s rarely more than one of them each year. In 2017, the one film featuring an Asian-American protagonist was Kogonada’s Columbus, in which John Cho was beautifully restrained — one of our favourite performances of the year (he also starred in Search at Sundance 2018). In 2016, it was Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, also an LGBT film about an Asian-American. White Rabbit seems rarer still for the fact that it’s directed by a white man, but completely attuned to the voice of its protagonist.
Bang recalled, “As soon as I met [Wein], I could tell that he’s really evolved and would really listen. He wouldn’t try to just put his male perspective onto this project. He would really be open to letting us be ourselves and to really show the multiple levels of being a woman and artist and single. It wasn’t just going to be this one, narrow view.”
The pair shared a passion for, as Wein put it, “flipping stereotypes and how we perceive things. The movie starts and you think, ‘Is this a foreign film? Are we following an actual Korean woman who is going to be speaking Korean?’ The phone calls are in Korean. You think that’s who she is. But no, she’s someone else.” The first scene of the film finds Sophia in a Whole Foods, doing a piece of performance art and playing the role of a new Korean immigrant. We then watch her bike home and make a call to her mother. It’s not until the next scene, when she’s on a job as a Task Rabbit, that we hear her speak English in her natural, American accent.
Sophia’s performance art in the film is based on Bang’s own original performance art pieces. In fact, it’s how Bang and Wein first connected. “I saw this woman [sitting] next to me at the REDCAT theatre in a performance art piece that she did called Can you hear me, LA92?, and I fell in love in that moment,” Wein recalled. “I told my wife, ‘Don’t worry, but I’m in love with this woman, Vivian.’ It was just so fascinating and interesting.”
Wein was captivated by Bang’s piece, which explored the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles in 1992. “I didn’t know as much about the history of the LA Riots outside of what I had watched in documentaries or seen in the news,” Wein elaborated. “She illuminated so many interesting stories and characters. I left thinking it would be so interesting and amazing to try to collaborate on a film, and have those characters appear in a fictional context, asking those same kinds of questions, and then interacting with a contemporary black woman, played by Nana Ghana, who is actually an African immigrant, and see what kind of story would be between two contemporary women who have really interesting backgrounds in terms of identity politics.”‘You want to have a dialogue, but you’re talking at me.’ Click To Tweet
In White Rabbit, Sophia performs a version of Can you hear me, LA92? in a park and later, at a cafeteria in a Korean mall. “When she’s in the Korean mall, you would expect the other Koreans in that context to pay attention, but they’re not,” said Wein. “But then, when she’s in Whole Foods, those white people are woke and trying to listen. I thought that was an interesting thing you wouldn’t expect: who she’s making an impression on, in what ways, and who’s going to hear her.”
“Even though Sophia does go out and hit the road, and viscerally do these live performances, she also has to reach another audience,” said Bang. “In this modern age, how do you do that? We’re all trying to cultivate our own audience through technology and youtube. This is the new way artists can take up space because they don’t have institutional support or they can’t have a gallery or reps representing their work. This is their way of putting themselves out there to reach a more worldly audience. She’s trying it all, multidisciplinary platforms.”
It’s at the park, performing her piece, where Sophia first meets Victoria. She’s a fellow artist, but at first, Sophia only recognizes Victoria as the woman who had frustratingly locked their bikes together the day before. The piece involves Sophia lecturing about the LA Riots, holding a microphone and portable speaker, to make sure she’s heard. Victoria approaches her afterward to talk about the piece, not recognizing her at first, and gets an earful. “I love when Victoria says to Sophia, in the park, ‘You want to have a dialogue, but you’re talking at me,’” said Bang.
Sophia’s biggest problem is that she herself is incapable of listening. As an artist, Sophia is desperate to be heard, but she’s also desperate to be seen for who she is. Her race and gender tend to dominate people’s first impressions of her, but they’re each just one of many identities she wears. Yet as Victoria identifies, Sophia’s efforts to communicate all flow one way. That may be part of why she’s having trouble getting people to connect to her art: one of her YouTube videos has just three views, and people tend to tune her out when she performs in public spaces. Her art is most successful when she starts to connect to others on an individual level.'Women can get so close to each other in their friendships. It can be so deeply emotional, and that line of, ’Is it more than than just friends?''- Daryl WeinClick To Tweet
Sophia is so used to feeling erased — as an artist and as a woman of colour — that she has trouble listening and seeing people as individuals instead of as what they represent. She’s been traumatized by systemic racism, being surrounded by whiteness, to the point that she has no energy left to spare a thought for others. When a white director starts spewing racist ideas at her, she finds herself feeling obligated to comfort him. Her mostly white Task Rabbit employers tend to treat her condescendingly, asking her to do additional work she hasn’t been hired to do, like cleaning a carpet or unexpectedly providing childcare for a negligent mother. When Sophia asks her ex-partner, a white woman, what went wrong, she can’t stop talking and complaining; her ex explains that Sophia’s inability to listen, to see her as an individual rather than merely an expression of whiteness, made her feel unloved and unappreciated. By contrast, Victoria forces Sophia out of her comfort zone by making her engage with her as an individual.
Depicting adult female friendship, through Victoria and Sophia, was one of Wein’s major draws to this story: “I really wanted to show a positive LGBTQ storyline, which I don’t think there are enough of. This confusing line that is walked, with a lot of good female friends of mine, more so than men: [women] can get so close to each other [in their friendships]. It can be so deeply emotional, and that line of, ’Is it more than that? Is it more than just friends?’ Which is the question that is being asked, and they’re [Sophia and Victoria] obviously seeing their relationship differently.“ Sophia’s recent breakup places her in a “vulnerable position in her relationship with Nana’s character.”'One of my first ever bookings was when I was still in college, which was Sex in the City Takeout Girl.' - Vivian BangClick To Tweet
“Vivian has never had the chance to be the star and hero of her own film,” said Wein. “That’s why this collaboration has been so amazing.” Bang elaborated, “I always play the best friend or the sister who’s not really there. I’ve played Immigrant #1 and Immigrant #2. One of my first ever bookings was when I was still in college, which was Sex in the City Takeout Girl.” Judging by her performance in White Rabbit, Bang deserves many more starring vehicles: she’s a wonderful dramatic and comedic screen presence. But in White Rabbit, her character is more than just a role — Sophia is a call to other filmmakers to create more three-dimensional characters like her. For now, at least, Bang just wants Sophia to connect with people. “I hope Sophia gives everyone a bit more courage to just go out there and do it, whether you’re going to fall flat on your face or not.”
Truly intersectional films are still few and far between; here are some of our favourites from recent years. Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood is the story of and Indigenous Swedish girl’s coming-of-age through alienation and assimilation. The host (Sarain Fox) and director (Michelle Latimer) of the remarkable VICE series RISE discuss the disconnect between their identities as Indigenous women and artists and the challenges of finding spaces to combine the two. Leilah Weinraub’s nonfiction film Shakedown depicts the joy and freedom of black lesbian club nights in the early ’00s in LA.