6 Feb 2022
Thomas B. Tran, Joy Sung Kim, Sean Gougeon
It was barely a footnote in the news cycle that incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes significantly rose during the early days of the pandemic. Xiwen Miao’s Cha tells a story of one family’s experience, and the lasting impact it has on them.
Jiho (Thomas B. Tran) lives with his grandmother (Joy Sung Kim) in a small American town. He is second-generation Korean, and spends his time learning about his heritage from his grandma whilst the pair run a fruit stall from their home. But as the pandemic hits, Jiho begins to notice that people around the town treat them differently – and an attack on their home leaves him with a desire to stand up for his family, and his culture.
Cha is a powerful short story about the embracing of heritage in the face of intolerance, and the importance of family in discovering who we are. Having grown up in the United States, Jiho’s connection to his Korean roots is reliant upon his grandmother’s teachings. The pair bond over language and tradition, with the young man eager to learn. However, Jiho possess modern views and sensibilities around race, and differs from his grandmother in how he wants to react when the family are victims of a racist attack on their home. The film demonstrates that both modern and traditional values are essential in finding our true selves – and Jiho’s determination to reconcile these elements of his life make the film a celebration of Asian culture, despite the scenes of adversity the family face.
Thomas B. Tran and Joy Sung Kim share indelible chemistry, and their on-screen family relationship completely convinces. Tran brings a curiosity to Jiho – both surrounding his Korean heritage, and his growing awareness of racism around him. It is clear from Tran’s performance that he is torn between his respect for his grandmother and his frustration at their treatment in the world. Joy Sung Kim is magnificent as the grandmother herself, whose gentle exterior contains the hidden layers of a long-lived life. Her reluctance to speak around her military background is an ambiguous mystery – and Kim’s expression when questioned by Jiho is enough to engross viewers as to her story.
The film features stunning cinematography and production. Wide shots on an idyllic lake upon which Jiho and his grandmother sit builds a sense of Americana into the film, showing that their immigrant story is as American as anyone else’s. Director Xiwen Miao allows shots to linger on both leads, pulling the audience into their world and experiences more personally than many films accomplish. A chase scene after one of the attacks on the family’s home features frantic and distressing pace and lighting – echoing scenes from the horror genre and implying that the attackers have monstrous qualities.
The film is boldly political, and unafraid to directly use very relevant hateful phrases and quotations popularised by right-wing groups and politicians (you can probably guess which one…). It is important to see filmmakers reflecting the uglier sides of society in their work, and given that the film aims to raise awareness around anti-Asian racism, unequivocal clarity on these issues serves its purpose well – even if some of the dialogue feels a little forced at times to include these.
Cha is a powerful experience – both harrowing and life-affirming at times but affecting throughout. This short film is an important watch, both for entertaining and educational reasons.