Imitations of Life

Does art imitate life, or vice versa? Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life.” This age-old question has been asked and debated by artists throughout the centuries. It also seems to be the defining question that I explore every time I make a movie. As an artist, I’ve often explored the tenuous boundary between imagination and personal experiences, between fiction and non-fiction.

Amy Hill plays Booboo Stewart’s psychiatrist in White Frog.

Two weeks before I started shooting White Frog, my mother called me out of the blue and broke the news to me that my youngest sister Tabitha was just diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 32. I was completely flabbergasted and I told her that I was coincidentally making a film about a teenager with Asperger’s.

I could not help but feel fate played a part in White Frog falling into my helm. For months I had been doing research about kids with Asperger’s and my sister just got diagnosed at such a late age. Looking back at all my interactions with her, I couldn’t believe how suddenly everything made sense to me.

I had in fact never told my family much about White Frog until the phone call. They knew I was about to make a movie but I had just never bothered to tell them what it was about because I thought they’d never understand why I was making a movie about a kid with Asperger’s. With all the development work and preproduction pressure, I never felt like explaining to them about Asperger’s Syndrome or my choice of project.

For over a decade, I fought my mom to get my sister into therapy. I knew something was not clicking about her, but my parents refused to acknowledge it. Growing up with Tabitha, we all felt that she had a bit of a learning disability and a general lack of social skills compared to kids her age. The result was that she had very few friends other than the maids whom she was close to. We immigrated to Montreal when Tabitha was eight. Our parents got divorced when Tabitha was twelve. Subsequently, all her social and developmental issues were blamed on both immigration and divorce. Wasn’t that obvious? That poor girl… no wonder she had issues.

At nineteen, Tabitha was kicked out of my dad’s house by my stepmother and she tried living by herself in Toronto for a few months. That incident was the very inspiration for my third feature Ethan Mao about a gay teen who was kicked out of his house by his family and returned to hold his family hostage on Thanksgiving Day. Although fictitious, Ethan Mao was very much emotionally autobiographical.

Jerry Hernandez and Jun Hee Lee in Ethan Mao.

When Tabitha was in Toronto, I visited her and realized that she had some issues and should see a therapist. Her obsessive compulsive behaviors such as constantly washing her hands and locking and relocking the door had surfaced. Her few months in Toronto ended up disastrously and prompted my mother to take her back to Hong Kong.

With my sister in Hong Kong living with my mom, I started urging my mom to let her see a therapist and my mom grudgingly agreed. Tabitha started seeing a psychologist about her issues but after a year or two she quit. My mom let her go into therapy because she saw the obsessive compulsive traits that I argued were only symptomatic of a more deep seated psychological disorder.

As the years went by, Tabitha had several socially disastrous episodes that alienated her from some family members and friends. My cousin Tien, a doctor in San Francisco, also confirmed that something was off with Tabitha based on his interactions with her. For a decade, I told my mom that she needed to find a good therapist and pushed for a diagnosis.

“Mom, that was not normal behavior,” I said.

“Well, you’re not normal either. You’re gay and your sister said she hated you for that.”

“I’m just saying that if Tabitha doesn’t go into therapy and get a proper diagnosis she’s going to get worse over the years. I don’t know what it is… I just know something is wrong with her.”

I had the same argument with my mom every couple of months and I seriously sounded like a broken record for the past ten years.

In the past two years, more and more social disasters happened with Tabitha that affected my mom and she finally got on it and found her a psychiatrist in a society that relatively doesn’t buy into Western psychological disorders. Initially, Tabitha was diagnosed with manic depression and was given all kinds of drugs that didn’t work but subjected her to diverse side effects.

Finally right before shooting White Frog, Tabitha was diagnosed with Asperger’s. A few days before my shoot, I accidentally turned on the chat mode on Facebook and Tabitha messaged me, “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s.”

“Yes, mom told me,” I typed back. That was the first thing she said to me in months as a conversation opener. What an Asperger’s thing to do?

The story and emotionality in White Frog paralleled my decade of struggle to get my beloved sister into therapy. And truly it wasn’t until I finished shooting that I discovered how all these pieces of my life fall emotionally into the movie. Life must have been imitating art.

6 thoughts on “Imitations of Life

  1. at last your sister got the correct diagnosis. don’t know why but this makes me want to watch White Frog asap. and makes me so pumped to know more about the movie :)

  2. Is Asperger’s “treatable?” I had the impression it wasn’t; that it was more a matter of people around the Asperger-person realizing their condition and understanding its affects on social skills, etc..

  3. Pingback: Tea with Uncle Joe | You Offend Me You Offend My Family

  4. Asperger’s is in the autism spectrum. It’s more a condition… no drugs for it. It’s more about counselling and behavior modification.

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