US-based Malaysian director Ng Jing Ai on award nominations, attending Cannes and telling stories that matter

Her short film 'Delta' was shortlisted for the Young Director Award (YDA) in the Short Film and Passion Project categories.

Raised between Malaysia and the American South, Ng is a writer and director based in Los Angeles (All photos: Ng Jing Ai)

[UPDATED] Delta earned this young director nominations in two esteemed categories at Cannes. On June 22, she claimed the Gold for the Young Director Award and the Silver for the Passion Project Award, being an inspiration to young Asian filmmakers all over the world.



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Options: Congratulations on Delta being shortlisted for the Young Director Award (YDA) in the Short Film and Passion Project categories. How are you feeling right now?
Ng Jing Ai: Excited and proud … and nervous, of course. We finished this film only in mid-May and it has yet to premiere at a festival. The YDA is the first step in what I hope will be a long journey for Delta. The YDA is an incredible international competition, and Delta is the only American entry in the ‘Short Film — 10 minutes and over’ category. My team and I are proud that it tells a uniquely Asian-American story. It’s such a specific slice of American life that I’m relieved it resonated with an international jury. I’m happy to add that several Malaysians were involved in this film. The producer, Sandra Tan of Prom Creative, grew up in Kuala Lumpur. Lead actress Zoe Lam, who plays Phoebe, is half-Malaysian. All of us live in the US now, so it’s cool to be able to work together. As for the Passion Project category, Delta truly is that — it was made for no other purpose than the team being excited about this story and wanting to see it come to life.

Tell us what inspired Delta’s story.
Growing up, my family [travelled] from KL to parts of the American South every summer and winter. I didn’t see a lot of other Asian people in the US as a kid; one of my most vivid memories is seeing an Asian family running a grocery store on Tybee Island, near Savannah. I must have been about 10, and that experience stuck with me.

I’m a big history nerd, and I wanted to tell a kind of folk story about Asian-Americans because we never see that. During the pandemic in 2020 and while researching pockets of Asian-American history, I came across an article in The New York Times titled ‘Neither Black nor White in the Mississippi Delta’. There was this beautiful photo project featuring the Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta — the Delta Chinese — and I was immediately drawn to it, having lived in the South and attended university there.

I reached out to members of the Delta Chinese community and many were hesitant to speak because there had already been documentaries and news articles. But I explained that I wanted to write something completely fictional. I interviewed around 40 people under an agreement of confidentiality over two years, reaching out on LinkedIn and Facebook ... I even went to Mississippi and walked around a few towns to meet people that way.

Their history is fascinating and so invisible, even within the US; the community lived through a dark period of American history, the Jim Crow South. The Delta Chinese were neither black nor white in a society where that distinction meant everything. I wrote so many variations of this story set in different time periods, but what stuck with me were the conversations with members of the younger generation. For those who left, the conflict they felt about leaving their history and home behind; for those who stayed, the frustrations. I related to that. Finally, I see a lot of Asian-American stories featuring parent-child relationships. But the truth is I don’t particularly resonate with that conflict — so I wrote about two siblings instead.


Lead actress Zoe Lam, who plays Phoebe, is half-Malaysian

What made you decide to shoot in Greenville? We read that Mississippi Delta Chinese used to live in Memphis all the way to Vicksburg. 
During our scout, we drove through several Delta towns, and Greenville was where we found our most favourite locations. A major draw was the Chinese cemetery there, which is historic, beautiful and sent chills down my spine because it somehow felt familiar to me. The community there was so welcoming and helpful, and the film would not have been possible without them. Half the actors in Delta are non-actors, meaning they are actual members of the Greenville and Delta Chinese communities; I wanted this film to be true to its roots.

What was it like working on the project?
Delta was the first proper set experience I’ve had in the US outside of LA. In LA, and at the American Film Institute (AFI), you’re accustomed to this intense film infrastructure. In Greenville, we were three hours from the nearest rental house in Memphis. So, whenever a piece of equipment was not working, we found ourselves in trouble. It wasn’t an easy shoot — definitely the hardest I’ve experienced — and I got bitten by around a hundred mosquitoes on our last night. There were thunderstorms, too! I was surrounded by friends on this shoot, so that made everything okay. We had 12-hour days and would play pool at our Airbnb after wrapping up for the day. There were many obstacles, but I had a good feeling about this film, even when something unexpected came up.

And how did you cast your lead talents?
Instagram. We conducted a casting search through all the standard channels but, over the years, I’ve discovered that finding young Asian-American talent is incredibly hard. It was even harder this time because Delta is filmed completely in a dialect.

Tell us about your recent trip to Cannes.
I didn’t get to go to the YDA screening in Cannes the first time I was shortlisted because it was 2020 and everything was still virtual! So, this time, I was determined to be present even though there was no guarantee of anything happening. I’m just grateful to be able to travel and to take this film on a proper distribution tour because I graduated from film school during the pandemic. Nothing then was done in person.


'Delta' was the first proper set experience Ng had in the US outside of LA

What are you reading right now?
I’m re-reading two books: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin and Killers of the Flower Moon because I’m excited for the new Martin Scorsese film.

What are you listening to right now?
I love Boygenius.

What are your favourite sources of inspiration?
I’m a visual person who grew up with a lot of anime and manga, which I still love. In terms of movies and filmmakers, I’ve always loved the films of Scorsese, Bong Joon-ho and, more recently, Denis Villeneuve. Scorsese, in particular, has been a huge source of inspiration because not only is he this master director but also a master film historian and curator. I aspire to that. Furthermore, I’m really drawn to genre stories, and I love the visual world-building aspect of cinema. I’m a big proponent of the theatrical experience and write a movie screening newsletter for my friends in LA ... I recently saw Robert Altman’s Nashville on the big screen and it was epic. I look at a lot of fine art and fine photography to get inspired, and I read a lot.

What are you working on right now?
I’m currently in post-production on two more short films and working on my first feature film in the US, Forge, which we’re shooting next year in Florida. I’m also embarking on commercials and music videos as part of the directing duo Pajamas with my AFI directing classmate Portlynn Tagavi, who is also an animator at Netflix.

Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
It would take place between LA and KL, which is logistically impossible, and it would start with a good surf in Malibu, followed by a book on the beach, a meal with my family and then a good movie screening with my friends in LA.   

This article appeared on June 26, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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