“Marvelous and the Black Hole”: Interview with director Kate Tsang

Marvelous and the Black Hole is a magic movie. He seduces with a mix of sincerity and angst that resonates with the acerbic teenager in all of us, one who is callous enough to give the middle finger to an unfair world but retains an impressionable ability to be hypnotized by clever trickery.

The feature debut from writer/director Kate Tsang, which hits select theaters April 22 and on VOD April 29, tells the story of Sammy (Miya Cech), a razor-sharp teenager who takes action after the death of her mother. His father, Angus (Leonardo Nam), is out of options to overpower Sammy. His last chance to avoid bad kid boot camp is to take a class at the local community college. Sammy’s attempt to avoid his classwork draws him to Margot (Rhea Perlman), an unfiltered but enchanting magician who helps Sammy channel his raw, frustrated energy into the art of illusion and storytelling.

Its release is a marvel in itself, overcoming a series of treacherous misfortunes, including a main character redesign on 24 hours notice and navigating the perilous and uncharted waters of pandemic-era film festivals. “Every step was unexpected,” Tsang said, but his film’s miraculous journey led him to a fortuitous moment. Tsang creates a personal and elegant story about an Asian-American family working through universal grief. Acrimonious troublemaker Sammy joins an encouraging wave of empowered Asian women on screen, including turn red animorphing Mai Ling and Everything everywhere all at once Worm-hopping Evelyn Wang. Sadly, this also comes at a time of heightened violence towards the AAPI community. Thrillist spoke with Tsang about the rise of Asian representation, beetle juiceand a sweet but stinky fruit.

Thrillist: Wonderful is part of a trio of films this year, with turn red and Everything everywhere all at once, which center on empowered Asian female protagonists whose identities are not completely Westernized. Shows like Pen15 also helped give a platform to how many of us grew up with Western and Asian cultures. Do you think we’re at an inflection point where we’re going to see more of these stories on screen?
Kate Tsang: Oh my god, I hope this is just the beginning. I was so nourished by all these films. I love that it explores so many different stories that have Asian-American families, but identity isn’t the heart of the story and that’s so exciting to me. He has been preparing for decades.

There are plenty of people behind the scenes who made their films in the independent scene, plenty of Asian-American film festivals pushing filmmakers, outlets like Angry Asian Man, and journalists championing stories. Finally, people get to a certain point where they’re actually able to make the movies they’ve always wanted to make. I would say these people are probably people like me in my thirties who have had their noses on the grindstone and finally have a chance to break through and tell stories.

In our lifetime, Asian-American representation in film has been all over the place. A lot of what we were introduced to growing up were these superficial, symbolic Asian characters. If there was any hint of Asian culture, it’s used as a punchline about how weird it is or something. Sammy is a very American teenager but you don’t hesitate to include aspects of Chinese culture. How important was it for you to incorporate that into the story, where it’s part of Sammy’s identity but not part of this young teenager’s life?
Tsang: What she’s fighting against isn’t like “Who am I?” “What am I?” which are definitely questions I had growing up. She tackles something that I find much more universal, namely loss, something that everyone struggles with at some point in their life. For me, it was the loss of my family unit, as I knew it. And since I grew up in the United States and in Hong Kong, my way of seeing the world, the images and the visuals that interest me, are a mixture of the two. I wanted Sammy’s world to reflect that too because growing up I didn’t just watch American TV. I watched soap operas with my mom and, like, Stephen Chow movies. So I wanted that kind of mix to happen in this movie.

Wonderful comes out at a troubling time for the Asian-American community in the Pacific Islands. There was the Atlanta shooting last March, in New York there was a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, actress Karen Fukuhara was assaulted in a racially motivated attack less than a month ago. You said you wanted to do something that Asian Americans would feel in their bones, which I love and think you accomplish. What do you want members of the Asian community to take away from your film?
Tsang: I want them to see that they are so loved and appreciated. Sammy, to me, is an important character because she’s so flawed and so piquant. And if the audience can feel that she deserves love, their empathy, I hope they can feel that too. It’s normal to be like that. That’s how I felt too Everything everywhere all at once. I felt so loved by the filmmakers and that’s also what I want my films to do.

This story isn’t inherently about racism but there is a moment that struck me every time I watched it. That’s when Sammy starts researching magic and she finds a chapter called “Oriental Magic”. He describes adopting this antiquated caricature from the Far East to add mystique to an act. It’s a pointed reference to racism, especially one that’s part of the history of magic. Can you tell me about the inclusion of this moment?
Tsang: When I was researching for the film, I didn’t know much about sleight of hand magic, other than that I loved it as a storytelling tool. So I had to dive in and start understanding what this world was. I read books about it and took classes.

There are tricks that just have the most horrible names which I’m not going to repeat here, but like, there are just really racist names of some magic tricks. It was something that really bothered me because there was an art form there that I was really getting into, that I loved. But at the same time, every time I picked up a book, I felt a bit repulsed. Like “Oh, I don’t know if I’m welcome here, necessarily.” I love magic and what it can do, and I didn’t want to gloss over the fact that it’s a real thing. That if you want to get into magic as a person of color, you’re going to run into this messed up historical stuff that’s still pretty prevalent.

For me, it’s not magic that’s bad. Magic is an art. Art is accessible to anyone who wants to indulge in it. Maybe that’s the way this book is presented, as if their story isn’t for you. You know, as written with Sammy in mind. And I didn’t want a character to be like, ‘Because this book doesn’t necessarily mean me, I’m not going to do it.’ It’s something that interests him. She will do it no matter what.

One of the aspects of the film that stands out is its style. You have this great craftsmanship throughout the film and these surreal sequences and a really delightful production design that reminds me of Michel Gondry. You have these fantastic Sam Raimi-inspired sequences, with all that blood spurting out. And there are these wonderful wuxia sequences. Tell me about some of the touchpoints you and your team had in mind when making these creative decisions about how this was going to play out.
Tsang: Yong Ok Lee was our production designer and she is phenomenal. She designed the production The farewell and minari. She takes your ideas and elevates them. Nanu Segal who was our DP the references I brought her was like Lydia’s bedroom from beetle juice, really cave-like and dark and lonely. Also moments of Wilderpeople Hunt because i also liked that they could take normal looking settings, like inside the house, but turn them into really nice ones, kind of like slightly raised spaces, even though they’re really familiar. That’s the kind of feeling we wanted. A lot of things inside the house that we wanted to feel cooler because the family was so far apart and then when she meets Margo we wanted to start warming things up and bringing in more color at the end when it’s much more saturated.

Our costume designer Amanda Bujak and I have worked together on all of my projects since film school, and she’s largely responsible for the actors’ looks. It was Amanda’s idea to paint flowers on Margot’s boots and keep that theme throughout Margot’s wardrobe. We were on a super limited budget so Amanda went thrift and vintage shopping, something she thought Margot would have done herself, to build Margot’s eclectic wardrobe.

Miya does such a wonderful job as Sammy. She’s relatable because she’s a punk girl without being a punk. She has an edge and an attitude, but she’s not a stereotype. How did you develop this character with her and were there any role models for her look or attitude?
Tsang: Of course, Lydia Deetz who is like my forever love. But also Helen Jo, this illustrator who is just incredible. I remember seeing his illustrations of these really angry Asian teenagers years ago, and it blew my mind. When I started writing, Sammy, I had his illustrations in mind. I also wanted to model it after my younger self, which was pretty gothic and a bit punky, but couldn’t afford to go out and buy all the accessories, and also just wanted to be my own version of it. So I wanted Sammy to clearly have his own goth vibe.

You have the moon and you have bunnies. They are mentioned several times throughout the film. You said it’s a kind of Chinese 101. Can you tell us more?
Tsang: As you grow up, you celebrate the Autumn Festival, which revolves around the moon, and also the Lunar New Year. So I’ve heard a lot about Chinese fables and the legends of the rabbit on the moon, or the woman on the moon. I wanted to incorporate that into what Sammy would have heard from his mother, because I remember my mother telling me a lot of stories.

One particular case that really stuck in my mind is that I remember a child looking out the car window and thinking, “Why is the moon everywhere I look?” She just said the moon was following me because I was a very good boy and she was watching over me. So I wanted to incorporate some of that feeling into it as well.

What is Kate Tsang’s relationship with durian? Which side are you on, Angus or Sammy’s mother?
Tsang: The durian stuff is actually inspired by my dad. Like, my dad hates durians, absolutely hates them, but my grandma really loves them. I’m a fan, but it’s hard to find a new one.

About Monty S. Maynard

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