Sundance alumna and director/writer, Joey Ally’s newest short film Joy Joy Nails highlights the untold truth of abysmal pay, racism, and sometimes violence that women endure in the roughly 2,000 nail salons across New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
Bitch Media had a few questions of this rising film director whose most recent work dives deep into the dark places of race, intimacy, bullying, workplace violence, and human rights.
What was the impetus to creating Joy Joy Nails? There are millions of stories to tell of urban minority communities; why choose this focus?
I read the New York Times exposé “Unvarnished,” by Sarah Maslin Nir, a couple years ago and was personally blown away by a few details of this exact story. I grew up in the tri-state area, and have quite possibly frequented these salons, which was disturbing for one—to realize I personally hadn’t realized what was going on. But even more striking were a couple other details of this exact iteration of these human rights abuses. For one, these workers are physically holding your hand—they’re not halfway across the world, they’re in front of you holding your hand, massaging it, or they’re with you in a private room, and you’re partially in the nude, and they’re waxing you—some of the most intimate acts two people can share in a transaction, yet there’s such a disconnect in awareness of each other’s situations. Also, these spaces are largely female dominated, in many cases run and owned. I saw a classic bully story, a universal story, between two women in a space where neither has any real power but both refuse to be victims.
There’s a compelling tension between Sarah and Mia that crosses a lot of borders: race, power dynamics, and jealousy. There aren’t many stories told about the racism between Asians; so often the term is used as an umbrella. How does Joy Joy Nails reveal that complex reality?
I think to get universal you have to get very, very specific—the reasoning for maintaining the focus on Korean and Chinese characters in this narrative is that those are the ethnic details of the exact world of that article, of the nail salons of the tri-state area. Caste systems exist in these spaces, and in that geographic location the salons are predominantly Korean owned, with Chinese (and other) workers often being paid less. It’s come out since the film was made that this is happening across the country—suits have been filed in Los Angeles for similar offenses, and in LA the racial makeup of the salon systems is totally different. The details change, but the story is the same.
In terms of creating a world that felt like it was exploring this, it was extremely important to us was to cast racially authentically, down to accent authenticity, especially because so much of society and so much of media lumps all “Asians” in together. Finding our incredible cast—Kahyun Kim, Yi Liu, Tae Song, Sarah Chang, Esther Moon, Shirley Kwon, Chris Yejin, and Catherine Kim—was a really intensive process and the casting has been the most exciting part for me, as a filmmaker, to come out of this. To highlight these tremendous actors who Hollywood makes so little space for—only 5.1% of all speaking and named roles across film, digital, and television in 2014 were “Asian” actors. Now, of course, I’m excited to cast them in all sorts of roles—both inside and outside of the “Asian” experience. Esther, for example, is such a power lady as a person I already cast her in the next project I shot after Joy Joy Nails—as a film executive in a piece I did for Women in Film that’s coming out in May. It’s a new digital series about gender parity called Flip the Script, Esther’s episode is called “Shelf Life.”
There are scenes that do not take place in the parlor and shows characters waiting for the bus, riding in a van, and also the living quarters of the staff. What did you hope the viewer understood about Sarah and Mia in those brief glimpses?
We live in a world of dualities, and immigrant women are certainly living in that world, as well. The narrative of Joy Joy Nails is pinned around Sarah’s frame of mind—it’s a subjective story from the point of view of the “bully” character, who goes through somewhat of a transformation in the film when she’s faced with the unspeakable. Sarah starts the film feeling like hot shit—it’s her first day being manager at a salon she’s worked at for 5 years, and she thinks the boss’s son likes her. Everything is glossy and beautiful. I wanted to peel away at that concept slowly—these women are people with hopes, dreams, and happiness, as much as the complexities of their lives tear at them. I wanted the audience to feel Sarah’s joy before they felt her difficulty. I wanted them to feel her confidence before they felt her vulnerability. And then, I wanted them to know the truth of what this person is smiling through every day. That she’s a bully, maybe, but she is also being bullied.
There’s something universal about this narrative of two women coworkers that will impact viewers who may never get a manicure, work as a manicurist, or step foot in New York or an urban parlor. How were you able to draw that out in Sarah’s character development?
I think we all know, all of us, what it is to want something, and to have worked for something, so badly and so hard that it makes it unfathomable to discover it’s not what you thought it was. That disillusionment, and what we do in the aftermath, with that knowledge, is a lot of the human experience. By telling the story of a woman who’s just trying to get ahead, who’s done everything right, to the point at which she’ll do anything to protect her gains—at which she’ll tell herself any story not to face the truth of her circumstances—felt like a way in to this experience that would hit with a lot of people. It’s an, albeit twisted, take on the concept of the American dream. It’s a testament to Kahyun Kim’s commitment to that performance that we see this whole arc, in a day, in this beautifully subtle and wholly felt manner. She’s a powerhouse.
There are a lot of representations of culture clashes in Joy Joy Nails and language plays an intriguing role in exploring those conflicts. The film uses italics, sometimes not, English, Korean and Mandarin. What were you hoping to convey to audiences in these choices?
There was a decision made very early on not to subtitle Mia, the Chinese character, the bullied character. Mainly, pragmatically, this was because the film is from the point of view of a Korean character and a lot of the misunderstandings that take place between Mia and Sarah—and between workers in these salons—are due to language barriers. That part came from the real world. I didn’t think that the audience should understand what was Mia was saying, if Sarah couldn’t. From the filmmaking side of things, I’m aware that it’s uncomfortable to watch Yi (Liu - who plays Mia) scream and cry in Mandarin, without knowing what she’s saying—but that’s sort of the point. Her pain is real, so too should the audience’s be. It only works because her performance is so extraordinary, I think we know what she’s saying anyhow. Some human experiences don’t need common words to translate. The film is about finding our humanity in each other, across such barriers.
Women working in service jobs are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations and abuses. Joy Joy Nails moves incredibly quickly and deftly from macro to micro injustices in such a short amount of time. Do you think short film is the best medium to tell these kinds of stories? What are the struggles and advantages in working in short film?
Short film is an amazing way to experiment with a concept. They’re still almost impossible to fundraise for, and I definitely would not have been able to make this without the tremendous support of the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women, without the incredible collaborators that I had come on who are too numerous to name—though I must mention Constanza Castro, my Mexican born producer with whom I discussed and sussed out the universality of the immigrant experience into the wee hours many nights, and Minji Kang, an immensely talented director who came on to be a cultural authenticity juggernaut, and T.J. Williams, Jr., my feminist male partner, co-storyteller, and D.P. on all stories.
With that help, for me, this short was a way to approach a story that even I questioned my right to tell, in a more manageable fashion, at a level I could get funded and make into a “real” film while veering off the path of the storytelling that typically gets funded in Hollywood. I’m white, and I was born in America, and so much of my experience can’t possibly relate to the women in the pages of Unvarnished…but, I’ve been bullied, and I’m a woman, and I’ve now confirmed with the help of many, many collaborators to gain authenticity across the board from culture to language, that intersectionality in my storytelling is both something I want to and intend to be doing for a long time. I think we need to broaden out the space for new protagonists, new narratives, and shorts allow you to show an audience a world they may not be willing to look into for an hour and a half, so that later, they will be willing to enter that world for a longer or more expanded spell. I love that the internet has so many spaces for them now, and that they allow for dialogues to start so much faster. We’re living in a viral age and there are a lot of things I’m still figuring out about it, but there’s a lot of good there too. It helps us connect faster, and I think narrative storytelling helps us connect deeper, and the correlation is exciting. I’m looking forward to getting into longer format storytelling, but I’ll always return to shorts.