[Update Dec 12, 2020]
Ng has won in the Best Asian American Student Filmmakers category for her short film, FLECK.
While by most accounts, 2020 has been an underwhelming year to start one’s career or head to Hollywood, Jing Ai Ng is nevertheless buoyed by a good head start. We first spoke to the budding filmmaker last year, when she briefly shared with Options about her graduation thesis work, a short film named FLECK.
It landed Ng in the illustrious ranks of Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Jon M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Nicole Kassell (HBO’s Watchmen) with her grand prize win for Best Asian American Director at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Student Film Awards 2019. The annual event honours African-American, Asian-American, Latino and women filmmakers.
“The fact that they had won this award when they were students, it was really nice to have the same affirmation,” says the 26-year-old.
More recently, FLECK was shortlisted for Best Short Film for the 2020 Cannes Lion Young Director Award, an international recognition that certainly put a smile on Ng’s face. “It is especially awesome because it is not the student category but the normal short film category,” she acknowledges.
That said, Ng values something else far more than any accolade. “I think the most touching thing for me was when teenage girls in the audience at a screening came up to me and told me how much they liked my film and how it resonated with them. There were some who also cried at the end. It is really important to me to see how it had directly impacted people.”
FLECK tells the story of Jamie, an Asian-American teenager at an elite boarding school, who finds herself invited to an exclusive after-hours party hosted by a popular boy in her class whom she likes. Events there lead her to confront the reality that belonging can come at a price.
The synopsis reads like that of many teenage films navigating the social tensions of high school and identity. The plot itself is simple, though the microscopic capture of a brief moment deliberately leaves more unsaid than otherwise.
Ng’s treatment of what seems like a familiar story is done with a tinge of poetic flair. It is a valiant effort that allows us to fill the gaps of a wider narrative with our own imaginations, guided by her nuanced and visually attractive style.
Contributing to the undercurrent of emotions is her personal experience at boarding school in the US. “I was one of the few Asians at my boarding school. While the story is not autobiographical, I consider it really personal. It’s something I wrote thinking about that part of my life, feeling out of place,” says Ng.
That is also why she wanted to bring a positive message, or perhaps give the moment the gravity it deserves. “I think it is very rare to see that contrast of a tense tone when it comes to stories about women, in particular teenage girls. I never knew why that combination hadn’t been tried much, it certainly is more true to my own experience. But now, I think we’re in a time when stories of younger people are being treated with respect and craftsmanship,” she says.
Ng also wanted to capture a moment of connection. The ending of FLECK points to a crossroads of possibilities. “It is not hard to imagine that there are uglier things that can happen. But at that point, it was one of positivity,” she refl ects, professing a preference for ambiguous endings no matter the genre.
As the film continues to make the rounds on the festival circuit, albeit virtually for the most part, Ng — who is based in Los Angeles — has been working on her debut feature film, FORGE. “It is a crime movie about two female art forgers who end up running the biggest art crime scheme in the US. It is very much like FLECK in tone,” she says.
One may expect some surprises to come then. After all, the American Film Institute (AFI) master’s degree graduate attributes her inspirations to directors such as David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Bong Joon-Ho. “I do gravitate towards thrillers. Gone Girl is a film that made me want to become a director. Bong Joon-Ho’s movies are really important to me. He mixes drama and comedy in a very unexpected way,” says Ng.
That sense of contrast and complexity makes her think of Malaysia. Born in Kuala Lumpur, the young director says growing up here gave her an innate understanding of how multicultural the world is. “It is simply not just black and white. There is a lot of grey, and there are diff erent types of people,” she points out.
“Besides my love of food, the other thing uniquely Malaysian about me, I think, is how we see humour in every situation. I think that mixture comes through in my work. It is rarely just one thing or another.”
If not for the coronavirus outbreak, she would have been back here now working on another short film, Sayang. “It is about my memories growing up. But again, focusing on a moment rather than a long story. I think the best short films are about capturing a moment,” Ng expresses.
To think that she once thought it was impossible to be a filmmaker. Prior to being the first Malaysian to attend AFI, she did a BA in creative writing, aiming to be a novelist. “While I love books and still want to write, I think fi lm is the medium of our time. To me, it is the best way to express myself and tell my stories, since I am a visual thinker,” she says.
Commenting on the opportune time of joining the film industry, Ng nods, “Now is a really good time to be a diverse filmmaker, because there is momentum.”
What were once gender and cultural barriers are now assets, a shift that Ng is all too aware came at a price paid by those who preceded her. It would seem she is determined to carry the baton forward.
“I had a professor at my undergraduate university who told me that women just aren’t directors. I was told time and again that it just wasn’t possible to direct movies, and wrestled with whether I could pursue my passion or not. I think I brought that element to FLECK in a way, in that young women can forge their own identities despite what society tells them,” states Ng.
She adds, “Half the world is female, so why should such a small percentage of directors be female?”
Watch the trailer below:
This article first appeared on Aug 17, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.