‘This is the price we pay for the love we gave’

Margaret Cho and director Yen Tan chat about their grief and healing through "All That We Love," their film debuting at Tribeca

Margaret Cho as Emma Gwon

Jon Keng

Experience a moving meditation of grief and resilience in All That We Love, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend after a decade-long journey. Directed by Yen Tan, this touching dramedy stars legendary comedian Margaret Cho as Emma Gwon, a woman navigating life after the loss of her cherished dog. With her children leaving home and a fractured relationship with her ex-husband (Kenneth Choi) in need of mending, Emma embarks on a journey of self-discovery. The film features an ensemble cast including Atsuko Okatsuka, Alice Lee, Devon Bostick, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Missi Pyle, and explores shifting family dynamics, aging, and the enduring power of human connection. All That We Love masterfully intertwines humor and heartache, presenting a narrative that speaks to the universal experience of transformation through time and tragedy.

Tan and Cho spoke to JoySauce ahead of the film’s screening at Tribeca and opened up about learning to heal in the aftermath of loss and the music that comforts them most.

This article has been edited for clarity and length.

Daniel Anderson: Margaret, your role of Emma has moments of humor but she is obviously confronting grief and loss. It’s a character audiences might not expect from you. What drew you to Emma?

Margaret Cho: I fell in love with Yen's script immediately. I recognized myself in it, and it deeply touched me from the first read. I understood exactly what Emma was going through. There are moments in grief when you almost forget you're grieving, like when she makes dinner, puts food in the dog dish, and then realizes there's no dog. That is both tragic and beautiful to me. Those moments were so real and profound. Coming into a project like this is different from doing stand-up comedy or comedy films, where you're focused on the mechanics and architecture of jokes. Here, it was all about deeply felt emotion, with the camera so close, projecting that without making a joke of it. It's challenging for a comedian to avoid making jokes about feelings because it's almost instinctual. But it was great to sit in the truth of this pain and this experience that I know so well.

DA: Yen, this film has had a decades-long journey to get to this point and premiering at Tribeca. During that time, you went through several deeply personal losses. How did those bouts of grief shape the evolution of the film?

Yen Tan: My first dog, Tanner, passed away in 2013. I was always sort of drawn to the aftermath of that and noticing the vulnerable place I was in. Then I noticed how my interpersonal relationship with family and friends was shifting in subtle ways. I wanted to capture that feeling of it. Over the years I was very much trying to get the film off the ground. In 2014 we were shopping and trying to package the project. This idea of trying to make a film with a predominantly Asian American cast was… I mean people looked at us like we were crazy at that time, nobody wanted to finance anything like that. I think the film itself also sort of tackles Asian Americans in a way where we never really talked about race, there's no sort of issues of repression, oppression, or racism, the typical sort of tropes that we usually see in these kinds of stories, and it doesn't go into any of that kind of stuff. What's interesting is with the loss I went through last year with my next dog Tesla, and as recently as earlier this year with my husband Jerry, I just felt like the film has sort of come full circle in an unexpected way. I have to examine myself with this lens of wondering if this was just written about my past, because right now, I feel like it also has tackled themes of my present and my future. It's fascinating to me to unpack that in this way.

DA: Margaret, did the Korean concept and emotion of “han” inform your portrayal of Emma?

MC:
Oh, yes, Han is always there. I think han is constantly with me. It is that deeply felt experience of pain that is beautiful. It's painful because of something that was beautifully experienced. It's similar to the Portuguese word “saudade,” which is the beautiful pain of longing. Han informs everything I do. It really is deeply felt in this film. She's not in pain just to be in pain. It's pain because of this beautiful relationship that she had, and also this beautiful relationship that she has with her daughter and her ex-husband as well. It is surveying all the beauty in her life no matter if it's lost or found.

DA: Were there any moments of improv or did you mostly stick to the script?

MC: I felt the words were profoundly there and I wanted to retain that integrity. The fun part was working with really funny people like Atsuko, Jessie, Alice, and Ken. Ken is really silly and you wouldn’t think that because he’s such an action hero, but he’s this deeply silly, clowny baby. Yen is also very funny. During a tense night shoot, we were all exhausted, and Jesse started doing impressions of Yen’s distinctive walk. We all joined in, and it was hilarious. It felt like a family of clowns doing ridiculous stuff together.

DA: I love the karaoke scene in the film. There are several instances in the film where music informs the characters and each one seems to have a designated special song. Yen, what was your thought process on using music in that way?

YT: I like that you pointed that out. Karaoke is one of those things I personally enjoy doing with friends. I think it's an opportunity for us to reveal another layer of ourselves. I'm so used to having these song ideas that are completely unaffordable to license. What struck me about this film was with the Cher and Peter Cetera song, “After All.” I wrote the song in the script, but never thought we would get it because it's just too hard to license. There are just too many names involved that have to sign off on it. I was completely flabbergasted when we got it. It was really hard to find another song that had the same kind of lyrics that very pointedly talks about where Emma is mentally and with her unresolved relationship with her ex-husband. This was her song because they went on a date to see the movie Chances Are, where the theme song was, “After All.” I think there's all these various very specific geeky ‘80s things for me that I was always trying to plant in and and hoping that we could get it. Then when we did I was just really glad.

DA: For both of you, are there any songs that bring you comfort in times of loss?

YT: The other song in the film, “True Love Will Find You in the End” by Danny Johnston. I feel like that's a classic, timeless song. It's deeply sincere and earnest, yet completely true and profound. Even today, after knowing it for so long, it never feels outdated or cheesy to me.

MC: I think the '80s are always the perfect era. It's also often the age you were when you first heard the songs. Tracks like Talking Heads' “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” “Solsbury Hill,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Don't Give Up,” all from Peter Gabriel are really special. That era of Peter Gabriel is incredibly profound to me. I loved singing the two songs Yen said from the film. The karaoke and singing with Jesse in bed. It was really great.

DA: Emma receives a lot of advice from different characters. She’s told to move on, she is told to talk to Tanner as if he was in the room. For both of you, what advice have you received in your own lives that have helped you through grief?

MC: I think it's better to have known that person, that dog, or had that relationship, than to have never experienced it at all. This is the price we pay for the love we gave. Life is meant to keep moving forward, but living with the memory of that love is beautiful. For me, it's about carrying on and appreciating that we were lucky to have felt that love. Grief is what you have to pay for that.

YT: For me, the part of the film that I always think about, especially when I experience losses in the future, is the epilogue where we see Emma go on with her life. It's presented in a subtle, everyday way that doesn't call attention to itself. When I watch that section now, I find so much comfort in it. It highlights that as human beings, we are wired to keep going, regardless of what happens to us. This idea is very meaningful to me, and it's a reminder that if I fall down, I am wired to get up and keep going.

DA: The last shot of the film, we see Tanner in Emma’s home. Was the implication that he was always watching over her or he came to visit her as she is finally moving on with her life?

MC: I thought he was always there. He's always going to be part of that life. Even though they're not physically here, they're always there emotionally. To me, that was one of the best parts and very comforting. 

Published on June 12, 2024

Words by Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.