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2024 SXSW Festivals Film Interviews

Interview: Chi Thai and Jan Le on “Lullaby” and the state of Asian diasporic filmmaking in the UK


One of the greatest things about being able to cover SXSW over multiple years is seeing which artists come back with material. I met one such artist, Chi Thai, at an Asian networking event in 2022 who had helped develop an AR project, Prototype: Acorn. And while we didn’t meet in person in 2023, the FTI team had gone to see one of the films she produced, Raging Grace, an amazing feature film debut by British-Filipino director Paris Zarcilla that won the SXSW Grand Jury Award and Thunderbird Rising Award that year.

This time around, I had to make sure to reconnect with Chi Thai to talk about her live action short film, “Lullaby,” which was screening in the Midnight Shorts program of the festival, and I was pleasantly surprised to be joined by its lead star, Jan Le. “Lullaby” is a waterlogged psychological horror about a Vietnamese immigrant mother haunted by the loss of her child. The film casts a soul-chilling spell wrapped in a true-to-life tale. Discussions on genre filmmaking, details on the murky truths that inspired the film, and an extremely important indictment on British East and Southeast Asian film representation right ahead.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How has SXSW been for you so far this year?

Chi Thai: We’ve had a great time. SXSW is, I think, one of the best festivals that you can launch a short film at. It’s a true international stage which the industry actually really engages in and that’s what you want from a festival. So it’s been fantastic and I’ve been able to do that and bring over my gang, so we’ve been able to do that together. There’s five of us out here to support the film. It’s been very social and very joyful to do that.

Jan Le: This is my first time at SXSW. So, yeah, this feels like a real treat. I’m seeing great films, I’m meeting lovely people, I’m eating very well.

What’s your favorite meal you’ve had so far?

Le: Probably the sushi yesterday. What’s the name of the restaurant? Soto.

Thai: It’s very close to the Alamo in South Lamar. It is on the pricier side, but the quality of the food was so worth it. I was just very happy to pay the bill when it came.

Still of Jan Le in Chi Thai's Lullaby
Jan Le in “Lullaby (2024)”

(to Chi) You’ve been to SXSW multiple times. What do you think it offers to independent filmmakers who might want to screen here one day?

Thai: It really is, I think, the exposure to the industry. We all know that there’s a different film festival for every day of the year; there’s so many. But there are actually very few that actually can command the attention of the international audience and SX is one of those. So for me, it’s a really key festival.

Lullaby directed by Chi Thai
“Lullaby” dir. Chi Thai, starring Jan Le.

It was a really great showing at the Midnight Shorts last night. I know there was conversation about it going on during the Oscars, but it was a sold out house. I loved so many of the shorts there, including “Lullaby.” Can you share the origin of “Lullaby?”

Thai: Yes, absolutely. So “Lullaby,” I suppose, at the heart of it is was inspired by something that happened on my own refugee crossing when [my family was] escaping Vietnam. There was a woman on our boat who had a baby and the conditions on this boat were terrible and we were on this boat for a very long time. And our boat was sinking and we all thought we were gonna die.

The most terrible tragedy we felt was that she did lose her baby on this boat. And that’s something that’s just stayed with me for my entire life. I just reached a point where I needed to somehow document this story in the way that I feel I can, and that’s where it kind of came through. But it’s a story that has haunted me, and it’s essentially a ghost story. I felt it was really important to share the story because I felt like growing up as a refugee, the kind of things that people [said] to me were like, “Why did you come? Couldn’t you stay in your own country? Maybe you should have just moved to a different city.”– part of me was trying to, I suppose, portray firstly that no one really chooses to be a refugee… that you are kind of almost made or forced to be a refugee. You have to understand that anyone leaving their home country with only what they can carry is making a really serious decision, and often, you’re taking your chances in something that is super high risk.

That for me is the index that tells you the horror you’re running from. And if you manage to survive that impact somehow, you’re very lucky. But for most people, we all lost something along the way. This woman lost something that was massive. She also holds herself totally responsible for that. I felt that was, for me, my own thing I had to put out there.

Thank you for being so vulnerable. I know typically when sharing a refugee or an immigration story, there’s a lot of trauma and vulnerability in being able to hold that up front.

With Raging Grace last year and Lullaby this year, I noticed similar, strong embattled themes of motherhood across the two projects. I wanted to ask what draws you into the core theme of motherhood? And is that something you’re interested in exploring in future work as well?

Thai: Oh, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of common ground across all the different kinds of Asian communities. I feel like we all have very strong matriarchs in our life, right? You know, it was my grandma that engineered our whole escape. It was my mother that not just raised me, but also her brothers who we were able to escape with and give them their kind of start in a new country.

Chi Thai Lullaby
Chi Thai on the set of “Lullaby” (2024).

So for my whole life, I’ve been kind of surrounded by strong women. I think it’s just a really rich territory to look at. Raging Grace for Paris, who’s the brilliant filmmaker behind that, is a very real, but a very honest, wonderful tribute to the mother that he had.

Family is actually where we come from. So they’re going to be, I think, often the biggest stories in our life, right?

Jan, could you speak a little bit on how you got connected to the project and some of the highlights of being part of this one?

Le: Okay, so I’ve worked with Chi before in the past, since 2016. So a while ago. And Chi’s great. She’s one of those people who always stays connected to you somehow. So I’ve done many jobs where you do the job, but then you sort of just part ways. But with Chi, she’s always met up with me for brunches or gotten me involved in her other films in small ways somehow. So when Chi offered up this role to me without an audition, I couldn’t say no. I did feel a personal connection to it because my parents were also both Vietnamese refugees. I felt like I had to do it for Chi and for my mom… and I love this group.

A behind-the-scenes photo of “Lullaby” (2024).

Thai: And I want to say actually, Jan worked in “Lullaby” beyond the capacity of an actor. When I wrote it, I wrote it for her. I didn’t intend to work with anyone else on it. I knew it had to be her. 

And also, the film doesn’t really present this in the credits, but the actual lullaby that’s central to the film was a very close collaboration between Jan and I. We wrote the song together, and it was Jan that actually found the folk Vietnamese musician that worked with us to make sure that we were treating the lyrics and the melody the right way — that it was authentic. The song that’s written there is not a real lullaby. We wrote that specifically for the film, but we wanted it to sound like a real lullaby that many mothers would sing to their babies. Jan was central to all that and I didn’t really realize how seriously she took that.

Le: Chi had a very specific theme that she wanted to go with, like she’d written a poem. So I had to have that translated, but you can translate it in so many ways to be your lyrics. And Vietnamese is an extremely tonal language. So writing lyrics to music is so difficult because sometimes it just won’t go. But we got there in the end, and it’s great.

Can you speak to how your Vietnamese and Southeast Asian identity, directly or indirectly, came through in bringing “Lullaby” to life?

Thai: So I suppose maybe the more interesting thing for me to say is when I was starting out as a filmmaker, I didn’t know who I was. I would say I spent my twenties really lost in doing what every other filmmaker was doing, which to be honest, was servicing the white man’s vision and having no idea what that meant, right? I was just going with the flow. I wasn’t really in charge of my own destiny. I was just moving along in the system in that very subtle but very dangerous way. 

Jan Le in “Lullaby” (2023).

It was like waking up as Neo wakes up in The Matrix, and realizing the system that you’re embedded in. I had this massive awakening and I’ll be honest, I’m still waking up, right? I just realized that my purpose and my role in the industry, specifically in the UK industry, was actually to work with diasporic Asian stories. Ever since I had that, I’ve dedicated myself to all the films and projects I’ve been involved in since then.

I’d like to say it has some kind of connection to that. “Lullaby” for me probably is going to be my most personal work because it’s based on a true story of something that happened on my boat. But for me, I’m here to serve the British Asian diasporic stories. That’s what I want to do. I’m very proud to do that. And it’s also really, really vital work. I feel like I’m in a really happy place because finally, for the last few years, I know what I’m here to do.

Were there advantages or learnings about being the director, writer and producer of this project?

Thai: The thing is, I’ve produced so many films that that’s really how people know me in the industry, as a producer. And because this story has been in my life since I was a little kid, you know, the story was in my bones.

Raging Grace (2023) dir. Paris Zarcilla, produced by Chi Thai and co-produced by Darlene Catly Malimas.

I’ve been producing for so long so the producing was almost invisible and effortless because I’ve done it before. Like, I knew Jan was gonna be in it. I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer.  I knew all the HODs (Heads of Departments). I didn’t want to work with anybody new. I had to work with people I’d worked with before to create something like this. And so there wasn’t so much work that taking on those three roles were very difficult. It was just like, one became an extension of another and another thing. I wrote the script actually years ago before I did Raging Grace and it was after I had shot Raging Grace that I felt even more empowered to make it.

Because seeing Paris take on such a personal story himself was like, “Okay, I have to be able to do this thing. And if he can do it, then I can definitely do it.” That was actually really empowering to see. Directing in many ways was the newest bit because I had operated so adjacent to that for so long. And I suppose maybe because it was personal, I felt very confident that I know how to do this.

And I had written the words, so it was very efficient. It never felt overwhelming. Hopefully you got a sense of that because it was actually a very chill shoot.

Could you speak a little bit to the environment, the chillness of the shoot?

Le: Well, I trust anyone Chi brings on board. Like she said, there was a great sense of camaraderie on set. So even if that meant staying back a bit late or doing that extra shot, everyone was so willing that no one looked upset they were staying overtime. I felt like I wasn’t the only one that wanted to go at it 100%, which is a good feeling.

Director of Photography Mark Nutkins speaking to Chi Thai on the set of “Lullaby” (2024).

Thai: I actually came to this already as someone who’s super experienced, if you know what I mean? My directorial debut was an animation a few years ago. “Lullaby” is my live action directorial debut. There’s a different kind of overwhelming when you’ve only been doing it for a little while; you’ll have to learn a lot of things all at the same time.

So there was an element of, “This is fine.” My DOP has 15 plus years experience. My composer just did all the music on Raging Grace. Our editor Chris [CF Chow] edited Raging Grace. Everybody was coming in with so much experience. I just had the best team and I had the easiest job because they were all brilliant.

How would you encourage more filmmakers to explore horror or genre filmmaking?

Thai: I call myself an agnostic filmmaker. (to Jan) The first time I ever met Justin was at SX two years ago with an AR project. And the next year I came back with a feature and here I am with a short film. I think with the stories you choose, one of the biggest decisions you make is choosing what medium it’s going to be.

Behind the scenes still of “Lullaby” (2024).

And I think once you do that, that’s what you should follow. I think genre is brilliant because they’re all tied to the heightened human emotions that we have. I think there’s a lot of snobbery around genre, but they are all things that speak to the human condition. So filmmakers, whatever they want to do, you just need to be making it. You need to have a very organic response to the material of what feels right to and to express this story. Really, the most important thing comes down to figuring out what your unique creative thumbprint is and what the story is.

So a body of work just starts with work, yes? You’ve just got to make it and keep making it. No one comes into this industry fully formed. Whether you’re a writer, a director, a DOP or even a producer, you are figuring out your voice through creating a body of work. I say to everyone, try to make something every year. Even if it’s a tiny thing, it doesn’t matter. Practice your voice. Let it out there and shape it and everything. It’s the most important thing.

Any Asian or Asian diaspora storytellers you think we should keep an eye on?

Thai: I feel like we’re living in this kind of wonderful age, from a global sense. I’ve got different things to say about my own kind of community in the UK, but what an exciting time to be part of a global Asian diasporic community. With Sean Wang nominated for an Oscar with Nai Nai & Wài Pó and going to Sundance with Dìdi is exciting.

I think we’re living in a golden age of Asian American representation. Joy Ride, Past Lives… all of them I think are really important. Because the thing that we needed to move from when we talked about representation, is from poverty to plentitude, right? And this is where we’re going. I’m here for it all because representation is not just one thing. Representation has to be all those things.

But the thing that makes me sad is that the representation of the Asian diaspora in the UK, which is where I live and where I grew up, is terrible. It’s horrendous. It sounds very bookish, but I had to conduct my own study. I knew how bad things were from an anecdotal point of view. But a couple of years ago, I said I need the stats on this because I think I need to be able to look people in the eye and tell them and show them and prove to them how bad it is.

I did my own report and I paid to get help from an analyst. We did an analysis of all British films that were theatrically released in that 10-year period and we found that only 0.8% of those films were helmed by British-East Asian or British-Southeast Asian directors. Less than 1%… and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t surprised. I just needed the number to give people. That came down to eight films, of which four of those films were directed by the same two directors. So you’re literally looking at six films. And a number of those films weren’t picked up by distributors. They were self-released. It’s a really dire situation. 

This is where we need to change from the UK. What I’ve experienced last year through producing Raging Grace and seeing how our home country received and engaged with that film was that they didn’t respect it. They didn’t value it. The rest of the world did.

Still from “Lullaby” (2024).

We are living in a time where inclusion is on the table as an agenda. Raging Grace was recently up for some awards, and I knew I wasn’t going to win, but here’s what I would have said in my speech [to the industry.]

I get told all the time, we don’t have a problem anymore. Asians are included in the conversation. You’re very happy to show the films of Asian homeland directors. You’ll show any Kore-eda film. I love Kore-eda. You’ll show any Park Chan-wook film. I love Park Chan-wook. I go to all of them. And now you’ll show Asian-American films. And that’s wonderful. I’m there to support them.

But you will not give British, East Asian, Southeast Asian stories the time of day. And I need you to start respecting us at every part of the value chain in the industry. At development, at financing, at distribution, at exhibition, at festivals, we need to be valued and we need to be respected. And we’re not. If this continues as we are going now, when I do the next report to reflect the next decade, that percentage is just going to go down. Not up. That’s how I feel.

I do the work of at least five people. When most people are struggling to do one, I know what I can do, right? But even being that person, I can’t change the industry by myself and neither should I have to. It’s up to the system to create the change in the system. It cannot be done by one person or even a group of people within a marginalized community in of itself who need the system to create the change. I need you to start doing your bit, right? And this is where the whole thing collapses, right? Because nobody ever wants to give up a seat at the table.

This is going to be an ongoing discussion between us I’m sure. Jan, I wanted to toss the question over to you. Anyone you think we should keep an eye on?

Le: I feel like because Chi said what she said, I’m just going to say Paris [Zarcilla].

Thai: Yeah, I was going to say that too. Great things are going to come out of that man soon. It doesn’t stop here. Paris is incredible and Raging Grace is incredible.

This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort in-person at SXSW 2024 in Austin, Texas on March 11th, 2024. 

Header photo caption: The team behind Lullaby (2024) from left to right, Jon Clarke, Jan Le, Chi Thai, Amy Addison, Christopher CF Chow.

Artist pages (Chi Thai): IMDb | Instagram

Artist pages (Jan Le): IMDb | Instagram

Film pages: IMDb


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