“The Half of It” is your new Netflix movie night watch. The coming of age story, written and directed by Alice Wu, is about a queer Chinese-American girl. Wu also wrote the 2004 movie “Saving Face,” one of the only other films focusing on the queer Chinese-American experience.
“The Half of It” centers around Ellie Chu, a highschool senior from a small American town called Squahamish (it's a fake town, I checked). Ellie lives an isolated life with her father. Ellie and her father are one of the only immigrant families in their small religious town. They are seen by the townspeople as “the other.” To support them, Ellie works at the train station and writes essays for kids in school. Then Paul Munsky, a fellow classmate, asks Ellie to help him write love letters to woo queen bee Aster Flores. Thus a beautiful friendship is formed, and a series of teenage hijinks and mischievous plans ensue. Friendships are tested and restored, all ending with a large helping of honesty and heart.
The feeling of being isolated and invisible is something that many Asian-Americans experience. Wu puts our experiences on the forefront. She shows how subtle, seemingly harmless comments can cause many Asian-Americans to feel like outcasts. Ellie’s classmates shout “Chugga chugga Chu-Chu” when they see her. Townspeople refer to her as “the Chinese girl.” Ellie’s own identity is used as a weapon to point out how different she is from everyone else.
But even though she is different, she is also still invisible. As a teen, being Asian is rarely seen as being different in a "cool way". Asians are stereotyped as passive, compliant and demure, not exactly “cool” qualities. So no one really pays attention to you. In the film, the audience doesn’t see Ellie’s face until the three minute mark, and even then her face is obscured by glass. In a video, Alice Wu explains that this was done intentionally. Ellie views herself as a background character; she’s not even the main character of her own life. She treks through life accepting her own invisibility. She lives a lonely, quiet, peaceful life (give or take a racist comment or two) with her father. In addition to being grouped as “the other” for being Chinese, Ellie also realizes she’s romantically attracted to girls. With this realization she continues to shrink into herself.
Ellie is seen as invisible and so she becomes invisible.
When your identity has already been defined for you, it becomes infinitely more difficult to discover who you actually are. And who you want to be.
It is only when Ellie opens up to pure-of-heart jock Paul and bonds with sweet-natured Aster that she starts to embrace herself. Paul encourages her to sing her song at the talent show, and it leads to a deserved moment of recognition. Ellie bares her soul to her peers through song and she is accepted and seen.
This point of view is one audiences don’t often see. In films, Asians are usually bullied nerds, smart best friends, kung fu masters or (most often) not in films at all. Rarely are we given a beautiful story with a multi-layered queer Chinese-American character. Ellie’s queer and Chinese identity caused her to feel like she didn’t belong. Many people feel the same way as her. Under these circumstances, finding yourself is that much harder and your identity takes a backseat. That’s why we need more stories like “The Half of It.” This movie shows more diverse identities of multi-layered characters who don’t fit the conventional mold. It shows people that they are seen. You are the main character of your own story.