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Movie audiences shouldn’t feel badly about falling prey to Asian-American prejudices when viewing Stealing School, a satirical courtroom drama by director Li Dong about a Chinese-Canadian tech prodigy accused of plagiarism a week before her college graduation.
That’s exactly what Dong intended with his scathing critique of anti-Asian racism, which has reached a disturbing turning point with recent violent attacks in the wake of the Atlanta-area spa shootings. “This has been a long time coming. Coronavirus has been here for a year and a bit,” Dong tells THR as he points to Asians, including himself in Toronto, getting dirty looks and more recently experiencing physical assaults and hate speech across North America.
“It hadn’t come to an explosive boiling point, until now, and that seems to be happening in America,” Dong adds, even as reports of reports of anti-Asian discriminatory incidents are on the rise in Toronto and Vancouver. Stealing School tells the story of April Chen, played by Celine Tsai, an Asian-Canadian tech prodigy aggressively prosecuted during an academic disciplinary hearing by her teaching assistant (Jonathan Keltz).
But the villains in this piece are Chen’s white professors and tribunal judges as they attempt to prove her guilt or innocence during increasingly angry and emotionally fraught exchanges. In the process, Chen’s accusers also reveal their own corruption, pettiness and naked self-interest as tempers flare and a facade of civility and political correctness crumbles.
But capturing and defusing the bold hypocrisy behind the anti-Asian racism a mostly poker-faced April Chen faces called for Dong to play with the onscreen stereotype of Asians, appearing as cunning, untrustworthy and sphinxlike, as in the 1932 Hollywood classic The Mask of Fu Manchu.
“I did want to deliberately make her inscrutable so the audience could examine their own prejudices,” Dong explains. His design was to have the audience see-saw on how they feel about his main character and her possible guilt or innocence, and in the process reveal their own fears and biases.
“I want them to question why they’re going back and forth and why they felt one way and then another,” Dong adds, as Stealing School opens a window into anti-Asian prejudices so they can be subtly subverted by the end of the movie. Keeping a straight face amid dramatic tension is something Dong knows well after following up graduation from Canada’s prestigious Dalhousie Law School by playing poker professionally.
He was then hand-selected by director Werner Herzog for his Rogue Film School, from which Dong went on to write and direct short narratives, documentaries and music videos. Stealing School, Dong’s debut feature, bowed at the Napa Valley Film Festival in 2019 and was released in the U.S. by Vertical Entertainment on Feb. 26, 2021.
But while attempting a deep dive into anti-Asian racism, Dong insists he didn’t lose sight of a need for nuanced commentary to change hearts and minds. “I don’t think people want to be lectured to at a movie. They go there to be entertained, they go there to escape, they don’t go there to learn,” he argues.
“Basically, I want to help them (Asians) to be seen as real humans, with hopes and fears and that they make mistakes and they’re complicated just like everyone else, because what’s happened lately stems from a brutal lack of empathy between the perpetrators and the people involved,” Dong insists.
Stealing School, written and directed by Dong, is produced by Mark Sirju and executive produced by Will Woods.
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Sterling K. Brown