A few weeks ago, I attended my first screening at the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest (SVAPFF), the 9th and most recent edition of the festival. I was eager to see the independent film A Great Divide, as I had seen a friend on Facebook attending the world premiere of the film back in June of this year. The cast includes my fellow Duke alum Ken Jeong, and I wanted to see how Ken performed in a non-comedic role. The film plot summary:
“The Lee family leave the Bay Area for a fresh start in the rural expanses of Wyoming, only to encounter hostility and xenophobia in their new community. How they confront these issues will break them – or make them stronger.”
I thought that Emerson and West were great in their respective roles. It was great to see that a point of tension in the film, Ken’s non-comedic acting chops shine through. Some spoilers below, along with the Q&A session from the showing.
“Ken Jeong (Community, Crazy Rich Asians) and Jae Suh Park (Friends From College) play Isaac and Jenna Lee, Benjamin’s parents, each of whom has a different agendas for their move to Wyoming — Isaac has a new job, Jenna wants to ensure that Benjamin gets into the college of her choice. MeeWha Alana Lee plays Grandma Shim, Jenna’s mother, who has an important lesson to impart to her beloved grandson and a lifetime of memories to share with him before it’s too late. Miya Cech is Ellie Licht, Benjamin’s best friend and maybe more, a Chinese adoptee whose protective parents have shielded her from the darker sides of the world.
Meanwhile, the less-than-welcoming residents of small-town Wyoming include West Mulholland as Hunter Drake, a young potential classmate of Benjamin’s who begins as a bully but ends up warming to Benjamin and Ellie. Seamus Dever plays Ranger Tom Drake, Hunter’s brutal father, who plots with Wyatt (Marshall Allman) to drive the Lees out of town. And Jamie McShane is George McNather, the last surviving descendant of the town’s founding family, a generous benefactor to “his” people and a deeply suspicious and hostile nemesis to those from the “outside.””
Set on location in Wyoming, the rural beautiful nature of the state shines through as a character depicting the isolated feeling of many of the characters as they try to deal with their internal conflicts as well issues amongst themselves. The film really made me want to visit Wyoming (when the weather is nice). The landscape is gorgeous!
Isaac and Jenna Lee, the parents, have different approaches towards tension with the locals, with Isaac “going with the flow” and not trying to rock the boat while Jenna desires to outwardly confront and call out racism. The budding flirtation between Benjamin and his “friend” Ellie is cute in the context of them carefully having to adjust not being in the San Francisco Bay Area anymore and standing out in the small Wyoming town.
While I was born and raised in Western Massachusetts where I was only one of a few Asians in my town growing up, I never felt this kind of racism or resentment. But in the Q&A after the film, I was very surprised to learn that one restaurant scene, the filmmakers filmed without making changes to the restaurant props (which were quite xenophobic) and I was shocked and one of the actors returning to Wyoming on vacation describing his racial harassment incident.
Given the rise of Asian hate during the COVID pandemic era and rising tensions with China over the past few years, I have no doubt that explicit racism against Asians exist. However, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley, I’m more worried about hitting the bamboo ceiling rather than being driven out of my town. I think the only time I’ve ever explicitly experienced racism in the Bay Area was when a bunch of MAGA Trump supporters saw my “Impeach Trump” flag and told me to go back to China.
There is currently no release date for A Great Divide, as the film is making the film festival route and seeking distribution. If you get a chance to see the film – you should!