An out of focus closeup of a young Asian boy with braces, with his mouth open excitedly, with a gray street in the background.

Sean Wang’s Taiwanese American slices of life

From Sundance to the Oscars, one filmmaker tells stories about his childhood and his grandmas

Izaac Wang in "Didi."

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

On the last Friday in January, Sean Wang’s intimate, energetic coming-of-age feature Dìdi won the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Award for its ensemble. The following Monday, his gentle, reflective documentary short Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó was nominated for an Oscar. The two films could not be more different in their aesthetic and narrative focus, but for Wang—a young filmmaker from Fremont, California and a vital new voice to watch—they represent a continuum of memory.

Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó, which debuted at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin last spring, was subsequently bought by Disney, and is now streaming on Hulu and Disney Plus. At a mere 17 minutes in length, it’s hardly the most typical acquisition for the Mouse House, but for a studio that hopes to maintain a family centric brand while spreading its wings into new cultural territory (see also: Pixar’s Bao and Turning Red by Chinese Canadian director Domee Shi), that it feels like a radical departure is what makes it a perfect fit.

In an age when authenticity is so easily faked and commodified, Wang cuts through the uncertainty surrounding these ideas by training his camera on his two grandmothers—“Nǎi Nai” and “Wài Pó” are Chinese honorifics for paternal and maternal grandmas, respectively—old widows in their 80s and 90s who share a bed, and are as close as sisters. “Good morning!” his Wài Pó sings, the moment she wakes up and notices Wang’s camera hovering over her. She wakes up Nǎi Nai the process, but sweetly tucks her back in.

The short follows their daily routine, which Wang and producer-cinematographer Sam Davis capture in a bright but grainy 4:3 frame. Shot on celluloid, it bears the appearance of a faded photograph. This is particularly fitting, since the film is a work that reckons with memory. It’s mischievous in its telling, as it follows Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó doing everything together, from stretching in the morning to watching Superbad at night, and playing dress up in hip-hop street clothing at some unspecified time. They frequently acknowledge Wang, and even speak to him—they claim their lives are much more fervent and happy when he comes to visit—but the filmmaker himself never appears, allowing his camera to do all the talking for him.

While fun and bubbly at first, the film also touches on the two women’s lifelong regrets, and recollections of more difficult and tumultuous times—torrid histories of which they’d rather not speak. Despite its limited lengths, Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó captures what feels like a lifetime of wisdom, and a deeply pondered-over acceptance or mortality. Eventually, these become tied in to the idea of living well, and living together, an exuberant feeling the camera embodies by dancing with Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó. The duo’s conversations may pivot towards death and the limited time they have left, but when Wang makes them his personal movie stars, they’re full of life—a vibrancy he matches with an improvised filmmaking M.O. since he and Davis went into production without a shot list and simply went with the flow.

This jazz-like approach marks a departure from Wang’s other projects, including his carefully crafted debut feature Dìdi, which captivated audiences at its Park City premiere, and will likely be remembered as a coming-of-age classic after its public release. The semi-autobiographical project follows 13-year-old Chris Wang (Izaac Wang), a Fremont middle schooler in 2008, whose older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen) is about to leave for college, whose absentee father is working back in Taiwan, and who lives at him with his diligent, former-artist mother (Joan Chen) and his fast-talking paternal grandmother (Chang Li Hua)—his Nǎi Nai.

Awkward, tender, and brimming with adolescent energy, Dìdi is immediately enrapturing, from its introduction through the lens of Chris’s homemade prank videos, to the try-hard façades he and his friend group put on, in the hopes of impressing girls. It’s the rare film that captures the simultaneously sincerity and embarrassment of trying to find oneself and establish an identity as a young teenage boy. For Chris, this idea is already in flux; he’s “Dìdi” at home (especially to his grandma) but “Wang Wang” to his classmates, a split cultural identity he’s been dealing with all his life, to the point that it no longer feels like a big deal. His sense of un-belonging certainly bothers him, and it even comes up in dialogue on occasion, but Dìdi avoids the pitfalls of many youth-oriented Asian American stories dealing with culture clash by nestling these concerns within a more broadly relatable story of hormonal teen-hood. The film is Taiwanese American in its bones, but without making broad pronouncements about itself by verbalizing some easily digestible message of self-acceptance.

Dìdi, it turns out, is much more challenging than that; it’s a story in which its young protagonist’s cultural troubles aren’t a defector badge of honor, but rather, a motivating factor in every ugly and beautiful thing he does and says. From crushes, to poorly thought out jokes that backfire, to the desperate need to impress the older kids in his neighborhood, Chris’s experiences run the emotional gamut and feel so true to life that they become occasionally hard to watch. Izaac Wang, who leads a fast-talking teenage ensemble, is a firecracker in the role, and he brings thoughtful silences to Chris’s frequent moments of rejection and self-loathing, which eventually manifest as troubles at home.

As vivid as the movie may be in its depiction of late-aughts details—seeing young characters fall out of each other’s “Top Friends” lists on their social media profiles has never cut so deep!—just as vivid is Chris’s household dynamic, between his mother’s deep concern for his academia (and her own community reputation), and his grandmother’s doting, coddling nature, and ways in which these two women continually clash. And yet, Sean Wang films both women in ways that make them beautiful. Not just physically, but soulfully radiant. Chris may not fully see the ways in which they love him, but years later, Wang’s camera returns that love to them sevenfold.

Few teen movies have so deftly managed to paint broad domestic stereotypes before digging deep into their complex humanity, and even fewer have so accurately reflected the feeling of fucking up as a teenager while trying to impress one’s peers. The emotional fallout of these dueling predicaments manifests in both thoughtful and entertaining ways, making Dìdi an astoundingly well-rounded work, in which Wang—much like he does in his documentary short—peers into the past in order to reckon with it, while confronting his family’s story while understanding that it is also his own.

Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó is now streaming on Hulu and Disney Plus. Dìdi was acquired at Sundance by Focus Features and will arrive later this year.

Published on February 12, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter