SF Film Festival Opening Night: Sean Wang’s ‘Dìdi (弟弟)’

SF Film Festival Opening Night: Sean Wang’s ‘Dìdi (弟弟)’

I had the great honor of meeting filmmaker Sean Wang back in December 2023 screening his documentary short Nai Nai and Wài Pó and again in February 2024 after the short was nominated for an Oscar.  Because of that experience, I was excited to learn that Sean’s first feature length film, DÌDI (弟弟), was opening the San Francisco Film Festival.

Dìdi (弟弟):

Dìdi (弟弟) is written and directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sean Wang. The film is set in 2008 in the Bay Area, and is a funny, irreverent, and affecting ode to first-generation teenagers navigating the joy and chaos of adolescence as seen through the lens of a 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy, played by Izaac Wang (Good Boys, Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon). At its premiere in competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival it received critical and audience acclaim, winning both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast.”

I got a chance to briefly ask Sean some questions at the press line prior to the premiere. I was pleasantly surprised that Sean remembered 8Asians and my name.  I have to imagine he has met a TON of people since December and especially since February!

Review

I’m so glad I got to see the film and want to organize another buyout like I did with Joy Ride last year. Dìdi (弟弟) is an instant Asian American classic like last year’s Past Lives, Saving Face, Better Luck Tomorrow, and The Joy Luck Club. In past comments by Sean, Dìdi (弟弟) was very much inspired by the “coming of age” films like Stand By Me, and other film references of films I have not seen. Dìdi means younger brother in Mandarin Chinese and is also a term of endearment for a family’s youngest son. Child actor Izaac Wang portrays the little brother Dìdi Chris Wang (whose self anointed nickname is Wang-Wang.  He is in almost every scene and does an AMAZING job portraying the various ranges of adolescent emotions. Actress Joan Chen as Chris’s mom, Chungsing Wang, and has played the mother figure before – like in Saving Face, and Sean’s very own grandmother, Chang Li Hua, plays a tough Nai Nai (grandmother) / mother-in-law to Joan Chen’s character.

Dìdi (弟弟) takes place in the summer of 2008 in Fremont, California (where filmmaker Sean Wang grew up), right before Chris’s sister, Shirley Chen, goes off to college and Chris starting high school. During the summer, Chris has fun with his friends, makes some new friends and strategizes how to get closer to his crush cautiously (and it’s all maybe a bit too familiar).

Dìdi (弟弟) is a slice of life film over the summer that has Chris dealing with a variety of issues with his friends, discovering his interests in skateboarding and filmmaking. It mirrors Sean Wang’s life and family dynamics with his sister, mother, and grandmother and absentee father (who is abroad in Taiwan working).

Fremont itself is a character in the film as well, and the very diverse population of Fremont is accurately portrayed. So is the social media and technology of the time – MySpace and Facebook, along with dumb cellphones and Instant Messaging.

As a Taiwanese American that grew up in Western Massachusetts in the 1980s, my experience wasn’t like Chris’s – especially all the swearing and some of the family dynamics, but it definitely doesn’t mean it’s an inauthentic story. I am sure anyone who experienced adolescence can relate to the film as the experiences portrayed I think are fairly universal: trying to fit in, dealing with parents, trying to be understood, finding your way, dealing with a crush, etc.

I think this Variety review summed up my feelings on Dìdi (弟弟):

“Wang does a nice job of balancing his naturally comedic sensibility with serious insights into how he triangulated his own identity at Wang-Wang’s age. Still relatively original in the overcrowded teen-movie genre, “Dìdi” proves an effective calling card. Thanks to Netflix, which proactively develops YA projects with directors from diverse backgrounds (including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Tigertail” and “The Half of It”), this cultural milieu isn’t as uncharted as it once was. Still, we’ve come a long way since John Hughes hatched the Long Duk Dong character in “Sixteen Candles.” It feels good to be laughing with kids like Wang-Wang for a change. Vulnerable and honest, Wang sees himself in the character, and so do we.”

As of this writing, Dìdi (弟弟) is 91% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes based on 31 reviews (I assume all from the Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered).

After the screening, there was Q&A with the producer and Sean.

I learned a few things from the Q&A and from asking the producers a question. Dìdi (弟弟) was made for under $5 million (a producer wasn’t allowed or didn’t want to give the exact figure). The film was shot in 25 days, with the first 10 days with all the scenes that had kids in them. The entire film was shot on location in Fremont, California.

For a first time feature length filmmaker, Sean Wang has made an indelible mark and I’m looking forward to future feature length films from him. The film premieres nationwide on July 26.

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