Two years ago, “Unvarnished,” a New York Times investigative piece by Sarah Maslin Nir into the untold life of nail salon workers, sparked the rage of a nation with its depiction of abuse and exploitation. It also caught the interest of Joey Ally, a director who’d just experienced her Sundance debut with the short film “Partners.”
“I read it and thought, ‘This is a classic bullying story,’” Ally told Kore. She wrote the film while at the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. “I felt a need to correct injustice. In this country which is founded by the idea of the American Dream, these women are slammed into the corners of society.”
What’s emerged is “Joy Joy Nails,” a short narrative film about the manicurists — in a mix of Korean, Mandarin and English — that saw its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Kahyun Kim (“Austin & Ally”) and Yi Liu (“The Walker”) lead the cast, which also comprises Chris Yejin, Esther Moon, Sarah Chang, Shirley Kwon and Tae Song. We watch as two immigrants at odds — one a Korean salon manager, one a Chinese manicurist trainee — work through a messy personal relationship while navigating the harsh realities of the racial and societal inequalities that keep the salons running.
Yejin, one of the actresses in the short, has a deeper connection to the story than most. In a statement, she told the story of her mother, a manicurist who worked in New Jersey for over a decade. “She is not proud of her work there and insists she did it for the exercise and not the money,” Yejin said. “She was constantly complaining about the customers and ‘those Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Chinese who lived like cockroaches altogether in a coop.’ I thought she was just being racist and never considered how scared she probably was facing strangers every day who didn’t speak the same language. It’s depressingly ironic to witness discrimination within minorities as we compete to prove we are as good as ‘whites.’”
Though Yejin is fearful of the reaction her mother and her Korean friends will have to “Joy Joy Nails,” in part because of its refusal to depict Asian Americans as model minorities, she said it brings to the forefront an issue that communities otherwise refuse to talk about, but should.
“Joy Joy Nails” (Courtesy photo)
“I hope it will shed light on these real and disturbing issues facing Asian American immigrants in America today,” Yejin said. “The more stories we tell inside of any culture, and share with each other, the closer we get to understanding one another.”
The short adds to the number, Ally said, of powerful projects by women, in front of and behind the camera, and who are looking to give themselves the voice Hollywood often does not afford them.
Ally, who has assisted female filmmakers like Megan Griffiths and Lynn Shelton, is herself an actress-turned-director, one who became frustrated with the establishment and who came to the realization one day that she “should just direct. With the control I have, especially in independent filmmaking, it really is my voice, no one else’s, that comes through.”
Liu agreed. “I often find myself joining in a male character’s journey more often than I do in a female’s,” Liu said, in a statement. “Which means more stories have male characters as the lead characters, and therefore tell stories from a male’s point of view. I’m not saying that there aren’t any female stories, but there are definitely less out there.”
Liu pointed to the lack of opportunities she has, as a woman of color, in comparison to her male actor friends. “I find myself angry towards the unfairness,” she said. “I couldn’t address whose fault this is. [Male actors] always have the chance to audition for a leading role. They always have the shots of their character’s point of view, that subtle but critical moment.”
“Joy Joy Nails” (Courtesy photo)
The numbers coming out of Hollywood in terms of female-driven projects have been disappointing. A recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism found that, of the 1,000 top-grossing films in the last decade, only 4 percent were directed by a woman. That’s a 24:1 ratio of males to females.
Ally said she sees “Joy Joy Nails” both as a project of empowerment for female content creators, and as a reminder that stories of the underrepresented American experience, no matter how neglected, must find ways to be told.
The 18-minute short is, she said, more than anything about “the strength of women inside a community and how they transcend circumstances,” Ally said. “[‘Joy Joy Nails’] is not about how sad they are. It’s about how strong they are.”