For Izzy, writer-director Alex Chu’s latest film, is a story of broken people who find strength through fellowship. It is the story of retired divorcee, Anna (Elizabeth Sung), and her lesbian daughter, Dede (Michelle Ang), struggling with addiction, whose lives change after they move next door to a lonely widowed father, Peter (Jim Lau), and his autistic daughter, Laura (Jennifer Soo). The film is screening at Frameline in San Francisco. It features an all Asian-American cast and tackles such themes as addiction, autism, family and, most of all, second chances.
Chu is originally from Canada. He started his career in film as an actor and began working as a writer-director after moving to L.A. ten years ago. “I found I really enjoyed it,” he recalls. “In some ways, I found it more fulfilling.” His interest in filmmaking coincides with his passion for storytelling. “As a writer-director, you’re responsible for the story; you’re the custodian of the story. That does resonate with me. Your responsibility is to make sure that audiences will connect with it, whether you’re making a fiction film or a documentary.”
His commitment to the story does not prevent him from experimenting with different cinematic styles and techniques. For example, For Izzy features elements borrowed from documentary filmmaking and animation sequences. It also makes use of different types of cameras, some of which are consumer cameras and iPhones that, as he explains, are “like getting windows into what the characters are seeing.” In a way, this fragmented style resembles his screenwriting approach. He says that most of his stories don’t come fully formed. As such, his screenplays are constructed from a barrage of notes he makes on his phone, notebooks, and scraps of papers with fragments of characters, narratives and ideas.
From the beginning, Chu envisioned For Izzy as a collaborative effort with his actors. He wrote the characters around Soo, Sung and Lau, with whom he had worked on his 2014 feature debut Yes, And…, and although he had not worked with Ang before, the fact that he brought her onto the project from quite early helped him during the production’s early stages. As an ensemble, the actors would meet him at his apartment for workshops, line readings, and to give him feedback on his script: “Especially if I have actors I really trust, when they instinctively say something doesn’t work, I trust them.”
Sung and Lau were particularly helpful to Chu when he was writing the story of the romance between their characters, which ended up being more restrained than he had originally envisioned it. “I’m not at that age. They had the life experience that I don’t have. The restraint that came from how these characters come together, a lot of that was them saying, ‘hey, based on our culture as older Chinese people of that generation, and given that these characters are not actors, so they’re not as emotionally available as actors would be in real life, and given that they’re older, they wouldn’t get so intimate so quickly.’”
Sung sadly passed away in May and For Izzy is dedicated to her memory. “Elizabeth was a phenomenal person,” Chu says. “She was like a godmother and like a mentor to a lot of people in our industry. She was an amazing actress but also willing to open up her contact list. At the same time, she didn’t suffer fools. She had a strong personality, but it was wrapped in kindness.”
The world of For Izzy partly emerged from things that are familiar to Chu. For example, the Asian-American characters and the LGBT themes are part of his natural environment. “I’ve lived in predominantly LGBT neighbourhoods for the last twenty years,” he explains. “It’s just part of my life. It’s the people I know and I see every day as opposed to it always having to be about social issues. They’re obviously important to discuss, but from my standpoint as a storyteller, I also wanted to have LGBT characters without having to make it a thing.”
Chu is also familiar with addiction. He says it runs in his family and believes it to be a very misunderstood thing. Rather than showing it from a clinical standpoint, he opted to talk about its human side. “It’s not as cut and dried as it might seem. It’s about individuals finding their own path through it.” For Dede, that path is through fellowship and family, and her willingness to connect with other people. “People get addicted for very different reasons or for very different circumstances,” he says. “At the same time, that means that there are different ways for people to recover.”
However, Chu says that he likes to write not only about what he knows but also what he wants to know more about. He approached the theme of autism, which he admits he knew little about, with great curiosity and in the way a journalist might. “I wanted to talk about people who were already adults. When people think of autism, generally the images that come to mind are typically of children. I was really curious to see what happen when they become adults.”
Whether dealing with LGBT themes, autism, addiction, or stories of other affinity or minority groups, Chu notices that a running theme in a lot of the things he is attracted to is people who are misunderstood. He also believes that “you can be different without being other. You can be different and still be us. If you’re a child growing up feeling like you’re other, that has a profound effect on you for the rest of your life and not always in a good way. Some people can transmute it into something magical, whether it’s through art or social activism. But there are other people who are profoundly broken by it and I think that’s just an essential part of where we’re at right now. It’s about mainstreaming voices.”
The characters in For Izzy are also profoundly broken and their stories in the film coincide with the director’s belief that some sort of family unit, whether it’s traditional or biological, or whether it’s friends who are so close that they are basically family members, provides a sense of closeness that is so essential. “There’s a lot of broken people and a lot of us are broken inside. And I don’t know what the solution is, but I think part of it might be having some sort of connection. Technology can give the illusion of being connected. But as we get more connected, the human element is more important.”
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Alex Chu