We’re Premiering ‘Parallel 平行’, a Short Film on Language Barriers and Mixed Race Identity
We’re excited to announce we’re hosting the online premiere for Rosanna Lee’s evocative short film, Parallel 平行.
Last week (8 September), Undercurrents kicked off with an evening of film screenings followed by a club night of global electronic sounds. Rosanna Lee’s short film, Parallel 平行, was screened throughout the evening and we’re excited to be hosting it on the site today as an online two-week exclusive.
Parallel 平行 follows the experience of one protagonist: a woman of dual heritage who’s unable to understand her Cantonese-speaking family. At a dim sum meal with her family, the evocative short cycles through a series of emotions played by actor Millie Chu. Lee purposefully incorporates music, sound and visual close-ups of hands to focus on the power of non-verbal communication. Gestures are used to show connection amidst the feelings of confusion conveyed by Chu. Through the protagonist, viewers are invited to become both the participant and observer, surveying the details of the lunch and the choreography of the occasion.
Alongside the premiere today, we caught up with Lee to dive deeper Parallel 平行 – from its compelling narrative to storytelling techniques and how it relates to her own experiences of being mixed race.
Where are you right now and what’s around you?
I’m currently in Essex, at the coast. I live in London but I’ve retreated here for a few days to focus on a short film script that happens to be set at the beach. It’s early morning, that’s when I write best; before everything has woken up and the world feels most still, and before I’ve absorbed too much of the day!
Can you tell me more about yourself? Where were you born, where have you lived and when did you pursue filmmaking?
I’m an artist and filmmaker, and I was born and grew up in Essex. I have a strange and complex relationship with Essex, as a place. Neither of my parents were from Essex – my dad is from Hong Kong and my mum is from Glasgow – and I was always very aware of how temporary it felt for me, growing up. Unlike others around me, I didn’t have roots there and it never felt like home. However, I’m surprised to find myself returning to Essex again and again as a space for creative thinking – most of my films have been or will be set there. There’s an element of reclaiming Essex and what it means to me, perhaps exploring it – as a psychogeographic site – excavating and tending to that and what it holds and churns up. I have ESEA (people of East and Southeast Asian heritage) friends who also grew up in Essex and it’s interesting we’re having similar conversations about it and all feeling drawn to it now from a creative point of view. I guess the places we grew up [in] will always hold potent memories – those formative moments where time felt most irrelevant – but there’s something about Essex’s complex cultural status and mythology that makes it a rich space of creative inspiration.
I moved to Sheffield where I studied English Literature at Sheffield Uni. Sheffield was a dream place to go to University and although I wasn’t that engaged in the film scene there, it’s where I was encouraged to write – mostly short stories and poetry – by some really inspiring teachers and mentors. I then went straight to Central St Martins (back when it was still at Back Hill) for foundation, where I studied Jewellery Design – but I was that person making conceptual, non-wearable jewellery out of soap, paper and ice.
After that I moved to Glasgow, where I studied Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art. The course at Glasgow was really broad and experimental, it was about finding your own language and learning how to look at things, as much as what was made. Although I was working in sculpture, I think developing a really strong sense of what I’m trying to make happen when I make a work – understanding the mechanics of line, form, space – is the foundation for my approach to film. I mostly make site-specific installation work that sometimes includes moving image work. My art practice is grounded in working with materials – physical objects and materials I arrange in space – but there’s always been a ‘live’ element to the work that, for me, introduces an element of jeopardy and unknown that is essential to how the work feels connected to the space.
I like that site-specific work is temporary and so the aim is always to focus everything towards a singular moment of connection with place and audience. I’ve experimented with moving image work since studying at Glasgow. Sometimes these pieces were slow, durational artworks that only develop the faintest of ‘storyline’ over time, and other times film came into my practice as a method of documentation. I didn’t expect to be working in live-action, narrative, filmmaking but it’s exciting to be in this space.
How did the narrative for Parallel come about and is it tied to your own experiences at all?
I’m interested, across all formats of creative work, in the choreography of everyday life and how our environments affect the ways we move, rest, interact. Simultaneously, I’m fascinated by the limitations of verbal language, how much we think we’re saying things when there are so many ways we’re communicating all the time.
I’d been thinking for a while about developing an idea that explored the relationship between members of the same family that speak different languages – sparked by my own experience of that. Most of my family speak Cantonese but I can’t so there’s been a lot of times where I’ve been in the position of the lead character in Parallel, very much involved in an event but also holding the role of observer. Growing up I’ve experienced that when I’ve been with family in Hong Kong, or at Essex Chinese community events, but probably it’s most acute when it’s just your family doing the most mundane things, falling into the routine; that’s when those bonds and breaks are most exposed.
I had a really strong bond with my po po, my Chinese grandmother, but we never spoke the same language. She ran a Chinese restaurant and takeaway in Aberdeen for 30 years so I’m told she definitely knew some English but I never heard a whisper of it! Instead I remember her face – trying to read her expressions and her hands – she was super tough and she had tough, strong hands. She’d clutch my hands in her palms and stroke my hands, hold them up and coo and make comments I didn’t understand. These exact actions aren’t in Parallel – the characters aren’t me nor po po – but there are gestures loosely based on some of these memories.
Where did you film Parallel?
We filmed Parallel at the Pearl Dragon restaurant in Southend, Essex. It’s a family friend’s restaurant and somewhere I’ve been going since I was a child. Many of the cast, chefs, location crew were all members of the local Chinese community in Southend, Essex. I received the funding to make the film during lockdown in 2020 and we shot the film the week before the restaurant reopened to the public. Part of the reason for filming there was access and availability but it was also really important to me that, together with the producer, Tara Sadeghi, we create an environment where everyone felt comfortable. The family that run the restaurant were so supportive and it felt like such a team effort; the film is as much theirs as mine.
The first place Parallel was screened was Focal Point Gallery, in Southend, just down the road from the restaurant. We hosted an event where members of the cast, crew and local community came together – with food from the restaurant – which felt like the best way to celebrate the project and return to the importance of site-specificity in the work.
What are some of the techniques you’ve used to convey your idea?
I worked really closely with the DP Kia Fern Little to think about the kind of atmosphere we wanted to create for the film. Kia was the very first person to come on board the project with me and I’m so lucky that we met and got to explore ways to articulate the concept on screen together. We talked about things like the aspect ratio (1.5:1) to support a more intimate and personal cinematic style. We knew we wanted to balance seeing the action through the lead character’s eyes, while also observing her observing, so we thought about moments that would lean in and out of that.
A lot of the planning was about how to choreograph the action and setup so that we captured that variety of closeness and distance – who and what else is in shot, how in sync or alone the character appears. Then, working with editor Amy Dang, we thought about how to create fluidity and pause of that movement in the edit – exploring how to create a feeling of momentum throughout the story that would be harmonious with the music, composed by Lung Dart. We were really conscious to balance the character’s slightly romanticised experience of the meal, which might feel like a mix of memory and reality, with sharper emotions of longing and displacement.
How did you approach the casting?
The casting is something I was new to, and felt a lot of responsibility to get right – to the film and to people I might be representing with it. Majority of the cast were non-actors and were members of the local Chinese community in Southend – friends of friends – that knew the restaurant and staff well. It was crucial to me that the cast felt comfortable in the space but also that cast – and crew – would respect that it wasn’t just a set location, it was a family-run restaurant, also going through a tricky time because of Covid, and needed to be treated with care.
The lead character was played by Millie Chu, and I couldn’t have hoped for anyone to play the role more sensitively and elegantly. I came across Millie via an Instagram account called Mixed Race Faces (https://www.instagram.com/mixedracefaces/) and wrote to her from there. We explored together who the character was, what she would be thinking throughout the story – and Millie and I connected over shared dual heritage experiences. The children in the film were nieces and friends of members of the restaurant – they too were familiar with the space – they hadn’t met before the day and there’s always that worry about whether they’ll get along or be shy. But halfway through the first shoot day the producer, Tara, realised they’d both run off with all the sweets on set and I think it’s safe to say the sugar high helped them overcome any initial nerves! One of my favourite parts of the shoot was directing the kids, we rehearsed the movements but when it came to film it’s always about trying to capture the slippery moments just before and after they were thinking about it too hard.
Can you tell us more about the significance of non-verbal communication in this film?
Parallel 平行 began with the idea of unravelling what it means to both belong and not belong simultaneously. It’s a position familiar to those of mixed, dual and/or immigrant heritage, but it’s also a universal feeling – one we see often in coming-of-age films. The dialogue of the film is mostly in Cantonese, and isn’t translated into English subtitles, so it’s been interesting to see the responses this elicits from different audiences.
For some, the language barrier has been received as a sign the film is not about, or for, them. For others, it’s an invitation to feel their way through the film without needing to understand everything. For viewers whose experience of mixed heritage, or of coming from an immigrant family in the UK, is aligned with that of the lead character in the film, the response has often been more visceral and I’ve been really moved by the intensity of emotion evoked and shared. In Parallel 平行, my first narrative short, I wanted to share an experience I hadn’t seen on screen much before. I grew up against the soundtrack of spoken Cantonese, so my relationship with the language is one that involves frustration but also an appreciation for the tones, rhythms and sensory experience of language. It’s non-remarkable to me, my siblings, cousins and friends, to inhabit spaces where we expect to be missing out on most of what people are saying to each other, but I wanted to celebrate what this loss also invites: to observe more closely, to experience a space in a more immersive way, to develop a more embodied language of expression that has a power and intimacy all of its own.
Does food play an important role here? Why did you choose to film a dim sum lunch in particular?
Parallel 平行 explores the motifs we use to define and hold onto ideas of identity and belonging – one of those is food. Food is such a universal means by which we express emotion, affection, connection and kinship. I chose to centre the film around a dim sum lunch because it’s the way I felt most directly engaged with Chinese culture, growing up in Essex. Going for dim sum was a weekly ritual, either going to restaurants in Essex or meeting family in Chinatown in London, Manchester or Glasgow. Those are the moments that most acutely highlight the fault lines that occur because of language.
Dim sum lunch is as much about having a space to feel ‘home’ as it is the food and would last for hours, so as a young child there were times when I would be really bored (I got very told off by an auntie for mindlessly using a chopstick to drip hoi sin sauce into the salt shakers in New World), but I also loved the chaos and frenzy of food being brought out and not knowing what was being piled into the rice bowl and watching the bright red and green jelly being swished up and down on trolleys. Dim sum involves a lot of movement, a lot of choreography and we tried to capture some of the circularity of movement in the choreography of the film.
In January I was invited to programme and produce an event for London Short Film Festival called Not Too Sweet – an evening highlighting work by filmmakers of East and Southeast Asian heritage. Not Too Sweet explored the twisty, tangy, melty role of food across ESEA cultures: from the meditative crafting of a clay dumpling to grocery store dance routines with pak choi as props, to the steely glare of an unwanted anchovy; the films offered a tantalising menu of sensory delight but were underpinned by the sharper, sourer feelings of longing and displacement that unite the ESEA diaspora experience. I felt honoured to be asked to curate a programme like this and it was a really special screening; being with an audience that laughed at the same things and felt allowed to laugh at them.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been developing a short documentary film about the artistry, mystery and mythology of Chinese lion dance and its relationship with Chinese martial arts. My family has long been involved in martial arts in Hong Kong and in the UK, and it’s something I’m hoping to explore in the film. We got to the final 12 in the Netflix Documentary Talent Fund with the film, and now we’re looking for new sources of funding.
I’m also developing a dance film set in the Essex countryside that engages with the lack of ESEA representation in rural spaces. I’m excited to return to dance and choreography work, and excited about conversations I’m having with collaborators about that!