ShortList 2023: ‘Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó’ Director Hopes You’ll Fall in Love With His Grandmothers

Sean Wang chronicles his elders as they dance together, fart in their sleep and choose joy in their twilight years

TheWrap ShortList Film Festival "Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó" by Sean Wang
TheWrap ShortList Film Festival "Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó" by Sean Wang

“Nai Nai & Wai Po” was selected as a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival, presented by TheWrap. You can watch the films and vote for your favorite here.

“Nai Nai & Wai Po,” (“Grandma and Grandma”), one of the finalists of TheWrap’s 2023 ShortList Film Festival, offers nothing less definitive than life itself. Directed by Sean Wang and starring his grandmothers, the 16-minute feature chronicles a week in the life of his elders as they dance, cook and fart their way through the days and nights in the last lap of their lives.

The picture, which premiered at the SXSW festival and was awarded the Jury Prize and Audience Award, is focused on the mundane, an arm-wrestling match between the 83- and 94-year-old protagonists, one of them reading the newspaper with a magnifying glass, or a moment of dancing partially to keep up with exercise since “Old people can’t afford to fall.”

Through this brief snapshot, which offers fears both spoken (they both know the end is near) to unspoken (COVID-era anti-Asian hate crimes), we get a melancholy yet joyful and complete portrait of how even the most ordinary lives, when viewed up close, become extraordinary.

“There’s a difference between sharing space and spending time,” Wang noted. He used the “infrastructure of documentary filmmaking to ask deep personal questions” in addition to “having fun with them.”

When asked about how much of the film was staged versus observational, Wang noted that part of the excitement was “trying to blend documentary and narrative elements.” He said he tried to “capture the mundane quotidian everyday moment of their existence.”

“I knew I wanted it to go to a place of unbridled joy that I feel with them goofing around. I also wanted to capture the middle in terms of tone whereby I’m not hanging out with them, I’m just observing them. I also was selfishly wanting to make something for me to just remember them in this time capsule,” he said. “There’s never going to be another moment in my adult life where I’m going to spend this much time at home and just be with them and see them.”

“Nai Nai & Wai Po” doesn’t just bounce between quirky observation and comic antics, as the third act gives way to a powerful duologue where the protagonists recount their youth and painful childhoods filled with poverty and war-torn chaos.

“This same person who went through something I couldn’t imagine spends their day washing dishes. I wanted to make something that captured the holistic experience of their lives. I want the film to encapsulate all these tones,” he said.

Wang explained that “the challenge from the beginning was making something that was beautiful and funny, and lighthearted but without ignoring the sort of the pain and the sadness that you know comes with reflecting on your life that comes with anticipating death and thinking about mortality.”

There’s a fascinating moment at the 12-minute mark where an almost subliminal series of family photographs flash in non-chronological order. When asked about the symbolism, intentional or otherwise, Wang responded that “She’s flipping through her own little photo album.”

“There’s not a ton of people in your life who know you from when you were zero years old, to when you’re the age you are now and seeing all the different chapters of your life,” he said. “They [his grandmothers] have the most holistic view of who you are as a person and the most bittersweetness of thinking of when you were a baby.”

Wang was asked whether there was any push-pull in terms of his grandmothers openly admitting to acting differently when he was around versus in his absence.

“We’re pretty upfront, and you can feel my hand as a filmmaker,” he noted. “We talked about the meta nature of when I’m home and we’re making this movie together. I don’t think we’re ever trying to trick the audience. The first thing you hear in the movie is my voice.”

As far as what he hopes audiences will take away from the film, “A lot of times, elderly people, and elderly people in our communities, get overlooked. The movie was also made amid a time with lots of things happening in the world, or at least in this country. I’m hoping that people see {my grandmothers] not as caricatures, not as people you must feel sorry for, but as human beings who have histories and present-day stories. You’ll hopefully fall in love with them the same way that I do,” he said.

The 2023 ShortList Film Festival runs online from June 28 – July 12, honoring the top award-winning short films that have premiered at major festivals in the past year. Watch the finalists and vote for your favorite here.