Directed by: #SkyYang
Written by: #SkyYang
In 2020, in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, the number of hate crimes targeting East and Southeast Asian people tripled. Sky Yang’s short film Sunny, which began as an intensely personal poem about the racism he has experienced his whole life, is not only a passionate response to this shocking and shameful statistic (he has used the film to raise awareness for the End the Virus of Racism charity), but also a rallying cry for his own community, and by extension anyone who has been alienated from their identity and forced into a role they did not choose.
Following a strange, daunting establishing shot of a huge papier-mâché head, the film opens with home-movie-style footage of a toddler called Sun. At such a young age, he is happy and loved and, crucially, unaware of his race; that is, until a classmate asks a question that confuses him: “So… are you white or black?” Sun tells the boy that he is white, because by his own admission, when you are young, ‘everything’s either black or white’. By the time he turns nineteen, Sun is isolated and lonely and horribly aware of how complex the situation truly is.
The imagery in the film, shot by Benjamin Bainbridge, is striking. Sun wanders around an empty London, his own head covered by the aforementioned substitute. In the natural light, we see that it is a grotesque, yellow caricature. Sun’s slow, lethargic progress seems to suggest a weight; it is heavy, this manmade head that has been forced on him and covers his true face. There is a suggestion, later, that while he did not choose it, he has continued to hide behind it. He is angry and tired, and perhaps it is easier sometimes to say nothing. This despondence continues at home, where again he is alone; voices from the radio mention the ‘Chinese virus’, tell people to go back where they came from. There is a clear sense that no matter where Sun goes, and even in the privacy of his own home, he cannot escape this racist abuse.
Yang’s poem also criticises the education system, the solidly white and Eurocentric syllabus Sun was taught. We see Sun contemplating books of Chinese history, not in a classroom, but in the dark by the light of a fire pit. It is not until Sun turns on the TV in the middle of the night and sees a retrospective on the Tiananmen Square protests that he begins to believe that he can be proud of his identity. For many of us – those who are privileged enough to see ourselves depicted in media by default – the image of a man standing in front of a line of tanks is simply that: an image. For Sun, this marks the first time he sees someone who looks like him in a heroic role. It is this shocking act of bravery by an anonymous man which speaks to him, and which prompts him to ignore the lies and abuse, and at last feel proud.
Sunny plays like a call to action, a spoken-word poem brimming with righteous anger, leaving us inspired, and even ashamed that we may have participated in the wilful ignorance which caused Sun and so many like him such pain. But our shame and our guilt are irrelevant; this is the story of Sun and so many others, who refuse to continue fitting into the roles that have been written for them.
Sunny screens as part of the BFI Future Film Festival from 18-21 February, free on BFI Player: