AUGUST 17, 2021
USA | 8 minutes | 2019
Drama short film directed by Justin Ivan Hong
Starring Whitney Cheng
A State Of Self
A young woman struggles to find her identity and what it means to be herself.
CineAsian Films (CAF): A State of Self has such an empowering message. What was the inspiration behind this story?
Justin Ivan Hong: Firstly, thanks for accepting our tiny little film! The seed of this idea came from one central question: What does it REALLY mean to ‘be yourself’? I hear that phrase casually thrown around by well intentioned people all the time. Does it mean not caring about what anyone else thinks? Well but as a member of a social structure we surely must take into consideration some level of conformity to gain acceptance? What if, all things considered, your current self does need some work in any number of attributes? ‘Being yourself’ just isn’t going to cut it right? Some changes need to be made. It really isn’t as simplistic as the phrase seems to suggest.
While the modern world does encourage you to ‘be yourself’ and to find your individuality, it ironically also tells you that the way to do it is by looking, acting and being a certain way. It is somewhat dissonant. There is certainly a fine line between gaining acceptance within a culture or society, and completely abandoning self-realization in order to conform and fulfill what other people think we should be. Where is that line though? And how is it defined?
I happen to think that the pursuit of understanding oneself is literally a lifelong journey – it continually evolves and changes. A considerable amount of awareness and intentionality is required to discover, decipher and discern who you are and what you’re about; how you think, the things you care about, the things you feel strongly for, and the reasons for it all.
So often, I think we simply don’t put in the effort and we’d rather take the road of least resistance and search for it externally – aligning ourselves with and pledging loyalty to brands, celebrities, sports teams, our jobs, our activities, political parties, religion etc… Anything that would just make the decision for us to say – THIS is who you are, these are the things you want, this is how you should act and this is what you would want to be doing.
This extends beyond identity. It extends beyond one’s physical attributes, It’s a deeper question of individuality. I think we’re all susceptible to this. I certainly am. But I sometimes feel like we ought to step back and question if we are relying too much on external factors to tell us who we are, instead of looking inward and working a little harder on understanding ourselves first.
But what I think I’m essentially getting at is, one doesn’t become confident or sexy or fierce because some clothing or item bestows those attributes on you. You need to first be internally confident and/or fierce (or whatever adjective), before you find the appropriate things that you can express said adjective through. I also want to be clear that I think meekness or introversion can be equally confident because confidence starts from the constant work and building of the understanding of oneself. The common universal idea of what confidence looks and feels like is very one-sided, in my opinion.
CAF: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during production?
Hong: Aside from the usual time and budget logistical challenges, I think the big directorial challenge was embracing the passivity of our main character Stacey. Writing and directing basics would tell you to make your character active and to provide enough information so that an audience would relate and root for them. But the main idea here was the exact opposite: she had to be passive and let the world just happen to her, and for these external expectations to bear down on her.
The one solution that our cinematographer Benji Dell and I came up with was to frame out the faces of all the people trying to tell Stacey how and what they think she should be like. The idea was that even though they are people, they theoretically aren’t. They are just ideas imposing themselves onto her, trying to take advantage of her self-doubt, and ultimately make a dollar off her. The only other featured face is her friend, because we thought that in real life, friends would ideally provide an honest and personal perspective. But in the film, we present the idea that even your friends are sometimes of no help.
So hopefully, this helped the audience connect with Stacey, even though she remains passive throughout? I don’t know. The audience will make that decision.
CAF: What do you hope people can take away from watching this film?
Hong: I hope people come to think that perhaps ‘being oneself’ is understanding that one’s worth and validation needs to start from within before you seek the things to manifest it externally. Not the other way around. You cannot look to the outside to figure out who you are inside. If you seek your individuality from the outside first, they’re going to sell it to you and tell you anything you want to hear. But you would still not have any clearer idea of who you are. Constantly strive to be the best version of yourself, love and accept the circumstances you’ve been given and strategically work it to your advantage. A bad poker hand can still win the game. Seek the external as an expression, and not as a solution.
CAF: Are you working on any new projects?
Hong: Yes indeed. I’ve got several short film ideas that have been stewing in my head for a while now and I’m hoping that I can get something going in the next year or so. I’m also in the very early stages of exploring and gathering information for a potential long-commitment documentary idea that I think would be fascinating. I’m a Cinematographer by profession, and so some of these ideas unfortunately lack the urgency or priority. Nothing concrete at the moment and so I don’t have any details to share. But it’s all just talk. It’s only real when it’s actually happening and the camera is actually recording.
A State Of Self is one of the many great projects shared with CineAsian Films through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them, submit your film.
Director, Writer: Justin Ivan Hong
Producer: Whitney Cheng
Cinematographer: Benjamin Dell
Editor: Ami Aripin
Also starring: Reya Carina Al-Jaroudy