On the last day of Alberta Poon and Katie Nguyen's shoot, for their short film Crouching Comic, the sky began to rain ash.
“I don’t know if it was Mother Nature being like, 'We don’t want this film, we don’t want your story,'" Poon, the film's director and co-writer, said. "But it was quite the experience. Looking back on it is kind of funny, and it's a good story, but... god damn.”
As the cast and crew stood inside, looking out the window at the toxic air, the power cut out.
“We had to get the generator,” Nguyen said.
Ash—from 2021 Oregon wildfires—and outages be damned, the Crouching Comic crew persevered. They'd planned the film through COVID lockdown and other delays, and nothing would stop this all-star team from telling their story of an insecure stand-up comedian trying to psych herself up before an open mic night.
Nguyen and Poon are a Portland dream team. Both prolific powerhouses, Nguyen has steadily forged ground in Portland's stand-up and improv scenes, even publishing her special brand of honest, understated humor in the New Yorker.
Poon's name may be less recognizable, but she's been behind the camera directing countless local projects like Sleater-Kinney's music video for "Worry About You," and the ASMR-infused masterpiece of cannabis cinema It’s Lit. She was also one half of Portland's brief answer to Broad City, Scorpiono.
It would be easy to assume the Crouching Comic character of Leila (played by Nguyen) is ripped directly from Nguyen's own stand-up journey. But Poon says her story is in there, too.
“I wanted to make a short film loosely based on my experience as an Asian woman pursuing something in the creative world,” Poon told the Mercury.
“Stand-up is very much a solitary pursuit,” Nguyen said. “Then being a woman of color, it can be lonely doing stand-up. You feel separate from everybody else. Also, you can’t really refine the act in isolation. You really need to perform before audiences, so it makes a lot of sense that stand-up was chosen as the art form for this project.”
“Through the jokes, the exposition comes out without being exposition," Poon said. "That’s what was so clever to me about trying to tell this story of an Asian-American woman... not only dealing all of her insecurities, but also the world’s pressures on her.”
Both Poon and Nguyen say that this short plays with the idea of imposter syndrome. No matter how talented they may be, there remains an internal voice that questions their accomplishments.
In the film, a photo of a man on Leila's fridge surreally comes to life and begins to heckle her in her own home.
“When the guy on the fridge comes to life, is that actually [Leila]’s demons? Is that shit men have said to her? Probably both,” Poon explained.
However, the most devastating force on the fridge turns out to be Leila's own mother, whose photo also pipes in.
“If a heckler doesn’t like me, they can go to hell, right?" Nguyen explained. "But if your parents don’t approve—if they can’t appreciate what you’re doing—that cuts a lot deeper."
Crouching Comic dances with these pressures with humor and wit, building an unexpected amount of growth in a short amount of time.
Poon and Nguyen are quick to extend credit for the short's success to their all-Asian crew, which Poon brought together to make the film.
“In Portland, the whitest big city in America, that is not an easy feat." she said. "I basically just got this wild idea that I could do it. To have a 100 percent all-Asian cast and crew in Portland, Oregon making a story for us, by us… was something that I’ll always hold very fondly in my heart.”
The crew was a rarity not just in production, but also just in general for the city.
“How often are we in spaces that are all Asian in Portland? Literally never,” Nguyen said. “This is a thing we didn’t know we needed, it was that kind of feeling. Once we were on set, the camaraderie was instant.”
That connection added freedom to the production, allowing everyone to focus on making the best film they could.
“It removes this really shallow lens through which we’re marginalized to race and this role." Nguyen said. "Now, we can really shine in this role without being like, ‘Oh, I’m the only person of color in the room.’ It was so nice to just be able to focus on everything else. Just have fun on our breaks, have boba tea, and stuff like that.”
After battling through historic fires and a global pandemic, Crouching Comic will finally be seen by those here in Portland, where it was made. It's a joyful moment for everyone.
“Even though the film has been in festivals for months now, our community in Portland has not seen it,” Poon said. “Being in a room with an audience with something that is so important to you and about your experience, and showing that in front of people and having them respond in a positive way is one of the main reasons why I'm sharing this.”
Crouching Comic makes its Portland premiere at the inaugural CINE / SEEN festival, Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy, Fri April 1, 7:30 pm, $10, tickets here
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