Jess dela Merced’s short film "Phony" portrays a quintessential experience most Asian Americans can relate to: a trip to the local Asian grocery store. The film centers on a young woman named Sunny who is struggling to succeed in her career and live up to her family’s high expectations. When she returns home to Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley and accompanies her mother on a grocery shopping trip, Sunny comes face to face with her fears. "Phony" screened at CAAMFest, the annual showcase of Asian and Asian American film, music and food produced by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).
We sat down with dela Merced – the film’s director, writer and star – to discuss the inspiration behind "Phony" and what she hopes viewers ultimately take away from the short film.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Madeleine Fernando: What was the process like for making "Phony"? When did you write the script and film the short?
Jess dela Merced: I had the amazing opportunity to make the film through Powderkeg: Fuse, a female director incubator created by Paul Feig and Laura Fischer. It was a wonderful experience getting to develop the film with them. They strongly believed in my vision and my dedication.
Madeleine: Food is an integral part of Asian and Asian American identity and culture. What made you decide to have this film take place in an Asian grocery store?
Jess: A trip to the Asian grocery store with your parents is such a shared experience amongst most Asian Americans. For me, it was always fun but also chaotic. There's always families yelling, people smacking melons, and a lot of near accidents in the parking lot.
Asian grocery stores just have so much going on all the time and it provides the perfect atmosphere and obstacles for the main character who is dealing with a lot of inner turmoil.
Madeleine: What is the significance of the name "Phony"? How did you land on that title?
Jess: Impostor syndrome is a very real thing that I've battled throughout my life and career and I wanted to speak to my experiences with it. I've dealt with a lot of self-doubt as a filmmaker in the many years I've been doing this, despite how far I've come.
I think that as a child of immigrants, I'm a lot harder on myself to succeed and reach a level of success that Filipinos can understand. This can create a lot of negative thoughts of not being good enough – of being a fake, or a phony. This story is about a woman who wants to be her most authentic self but circumstances don't allow her to be.
Madeleine: This film tackles a wide range of emotions stemming from Sunny's struggles with her career, familial expectations, etc. What do you hope people take away from watching this short?
Jess: I hope people will find laughter and comfort in the details of this very specific but highly universal story about a daughter who just wants to make her mom proud – on her own terms. I feel like it's sometimes harder for me to express my emotions and struggles with family members and sometimes suppressing those feelings can lead to unfortunate, albeit hilarious, moments. I know a lot of Asian Americans can relate to this and hope they know they're not alone.
“Phony” will be streaming on PBS.org from July 12-23 as part of the PBS Short Film Festival 2021.