Still from For Izzy.

My name is Dede Cheung,
Former photojournalist,
I was mapping photos for the Times in the city of LA,
My Friday paydays began to slowly fade away,
You see the newspaper business has a ‘best before’ date,
And now my ass is on the street like expired mayonnaise,
Which put a damper on my wedding plans,
Oh, and by the way,
I AM gay.
– Dede Cheung

Dede Cheung’s brazen announcement to the world through her video recording explodes on the screen as she peppers the opening scene with fiery bullets of poetic ammunition. Her angst is directed at America’s healthcare system in its inability to help her deal with her pain, her status as an unemployed freelancer and at her ex-fiancée, who, after eight years, broke off their engagement. She recounts her dizzying spiral into oblivion as she loses herself through drugs and alcohol.

The character of Dede Cheung is an example of director Alex Chu’s attempt to cover many different topics not often seen or covered in Asian American stories, let alone discussed openly in Asian American communities. Queerness, addiction, disability and even a romantic relationship between two older people in their fifties or sixties are all covered in the film. It was important for Chu to represent minority voices within a minority that are typically afraid to express themselves for fear of reprisal or humiliation. To acknowledge these issues and to show characters overcoming their own pain and struggle was an important goal for him. Addiction also hits close to home since it is a problem that runs in Chu’s family. Creating a story that highlights the recovery process was part of his inspiration for the film.

The characters are multi-layered, but the footage in the movie is equally as diverse. Drawing on the characters’ personalities, Chu used animation, photos, video recordings from a camera or phone, and documentary-style interviews to narrate the story. Chu wanted to push his team to the creative limit to bring his visions and goals for the film despite being on a budget, ultimately creating something unconventional. Chu fluidly melds these different elements into the narrative structure, never awkward, distracting or overdone.

Perhaps this is just a testament to the appalling lack of films I have watched with either an Asian American cast or Asian American representation, but I was instantly drawn to how openly honest the characters were about topics that are normally perceived to be taboo in Asian communities in general. The film’s honesty in dealing with these hardships gives an Asian face to the problems and struggles ascribed by other Americans throughout the nation. It is my hope that movies like this will encourage Asian Americans to represent their community by lending their voices to national discussions revolving around the big issues of our times. On a smaller, but arguably more important scale, it might help Asian Americans be more candid and open within their own community about these topics so that these issues will no longer be viewed as social stigmas or taboos.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature in North America at the Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature in the Asian American International Film Festival, For Izzy explores how strong and meaningful friendships can be found in unlikely places and the ability these friendships have to pull people out of difficult periods in their lives. The film lays bare its characters’ vulnerabilities and the raw emotions that lie underneath, allowing viewers to fully experience the emotional rollercoaster ride as the families go through its veritable ups and downs.

The Cheungs and the Yips

I left school really early
Because the kids would often tease me,
Keeping up with me was hard,
So fitting in was hardly easy,
But the teacher said I was disruptive,
If Margaret was alive,
She would defend me like a mama bear,
Allowing me to truly thrive.
– Laura Yip

After hearing that Dede (Michelle Ang) had overdosed on drugs, her mom, Anna Cheung (Elizabeth Sung) quit her job as an investment banker in Hong Kong to stage an intervention for her daughter. They move into a house across the street from father-and-daughter-team Peter and Laura Yip. Peter (Jim Lau) is an accountant who works from home with his daughter, a high-functioning person with autism who works as his assistant. Understanding that his daughter is “special,” he devoted his life to protecting and watching over his socially awkward daughter ever since his wife Margaret died from heart failure when Laura was a baby. Within the protective confines of their home, Laura spends her free time drawing cartoons and filming things, but she yearns to take her projects outside and explore the world at large.

When Dede becomes her neighbor, Laura (Jennifer Soo) takes an instant interest and liking to “Dede with the blue hair.” Laura convinces her reluctant father to let her become Dede’s intern as Dede fulfills her creative duties as a photojournalist. Bonding over their shared interest in beat poetry, Dede warms up to Laura and opens up to her, showing her the crafts of her trade as they traverse Los Angeles. Much to her mother’s surprise, hanging out with Laura helped Dede stay clean. As Dede recovers with the help of Laura’s influence, she seriously reconsiders her life and realizes she would like to become a mother someday. In return, through Dede’s guidance, Laura slowly learns to get around on her own, gaining the independence and adult stature she desired.

Meanwhile, Peter and Anna get to know each other, and their friendship naturally blossoms into a relationship. As Laura spends more time with Dede, Peter finally has time for himself and spends the extra time he has with Anna. For several months, the group functions as a tight-knit family until Laura has a breakdown under Dede’s care, obliterating the trust that was built and bringing things back to square one. Anna returns to Hong Kong and Dede sets off for San Francisco. After all that has happened, it is up to Laura to use her newfound skills in the outside world to help bring the family back together again.

Entertaining, heartwarming and completely universal in its messages about the healing powers of love, family and friends, this feel-good movie will have audiences rooting for everyone’s success as they follow along on each of the characters’ journeys.

For Izzy will be shown at Northwest Film Forum on Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. Purchase tickets here

SAAFF runs Feb. 21 – Feb. 24. See the full SAAFF schedule.

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