Tackling Asian America’s Mental Health Stigma: A Talk with ‘Dealing with Dad’ Director Tom Huang
At this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, dozens of films represented the cinematic talent of various Asian communities across the globe, but only one film spoke true to the often convoluted Asian American experience.
Director Tom Huang’s latest, Dealing with Dad, follows the story of Margaret (Ally Maki) and her two brothers Larry (Hayden Szeto) and Roy (Peter S. Kim) as they navigate the road to treatment for their father (Dana Lee)’s depression. Margaret returns home to find her father stupefied by his illness and takes on a mission to get him help. The three siblings, each dealing with their own personal conflicts, unite for a film filled with laughs and grit that challenge the stigmas behind mental health in the Asian immigrant and Asian American context.
We sat down with Dealing with Dad director Tom Huang to ask how it all came together and his experience with mental health stigma within his family.
Interview contains minor spoilers.
What was the inspiration behind the story? Did you have personal experience with what the characters were going through?
Absolutely. The film is actually based on my own experience getting my dad out of depression. It wasn’t just me, it was me, my family, and his friends, but it took us about eight years. A lot of it was just us trying to understand what depression was, and also trying to convince family and friends that this was more than just an emotion — like, actually a disease — that needs to be looked at and treated, like the flu. We thought, maybe he’ll just get better. But he didn’t. I think that’s an issue with a lot of immigrant families where depression is looked at as a taboo, or as a weakness, as opposed to something that happens. I wanted to show people that it’s not going to go away, that it’s not terrible to try to do something about it and just show people the first steps of what they can do. If people just actually start talking about it, instead of ignoring it, then more people will be able to find ways to get better, and get support.
How did you navigate your own experience with your dad? Was there a point in the eight years when you felt like you had a breakthrough moment?
I was in college at the time, and so part of the reason that it took longer was that I wasn’t there. I first saw him depressed when I came home from college during a break. I just saw him sitting in a chair just watching Oprah Winfrey, and I thought this is definitely not normal because my dad’s usually a real active guy. When I [asked] my mom, “What’s going on with Dad?,” she said exactly what the person says in the movie [said], “Oh, he’s just a little sad, he’ll be okay.” At the time it was like, okay, this is weird. When I came home again and saw he was the same way, that’s when I really got to be concerned about it and tried to press my mom to do more, talk to his friends, to get involved.
As far as me navigating, I was kind of coming in and out. In the summer, I was able to spend more time with him. He’s usually a strict dad, and the depression actually made him lose that strictness. He actually started talking to me, and tell me things about his life that I never had heard before, so in a strange way, depression actually made us closer. I thought that was pretty profound. At one point, I think the breakthrough was when his best friend came over and convinced him to actually go to a doctor. That was something I couldn’t do, like, he would not listen to me. When he took him there, that’s when he started taking medication. So what happened after a year, I came back and my dad told me, “Hey, can you move the couch outside? We’re throwing it away.” I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna use the bathroom first.” While I was in the bathroom, I heard, “Tom! How come you didn’t move the couch yet?” I just feel the hairs on the back of my neck go up like, oh my god, I haven’t heard this voice in eight years. And that’s when I knew he was back.
I want to talk about Margaret’s role as the head of the household. Why was Margaret specifically selected to be the character that propels the plot forward?
When I first was writing the script, it was about a Chinese American male like myself, dealing with it. I realized it’d be ten times more interesting if the main character was female, because of all the shit that Chinese daughters have to put up with. You know, especially in immigrant families, they always want a boy, but usually, it’s the daughter that ends up making sure everything gets done right. When I changed it around, it made the film and the character much more interesting. The film’s background is about depression, but the center of the story is about Margaret trying to figure out what her relationship with her father is. I think that the question here is, what do you do when you don’t get along with your parents but you know that they still love you, and just show it a different way? How do you have a relationship like that? And for me, when I was in college, I realized that if I was going to have a relationship with my parents, then I would have to change if I wanted to have any type of relationship with them. And once I realized that, it became much easier.
Would you say that in the film, Margaret is the one who undergoes the most change?
I think everybody goes through change in the film, in different ways, but yeah, I would say that Margaret’s change comes about in the most profound way. She understands her dad a little bit more, understands that there is a way to have a relationship with him, and understands him better – even though she might not like hanging out with him. And that’s okay. In the film, there’s a lot of imagery of being overwhelmed, with water, and drowning, and that water imagery represents the dad. Once Margaret figures out that she just needs to go with the flow and see where the water takes her, things are a little bit easier for her.
How has your relationship with your father changed before and after the depression?
I understood my dad a lot more after the depression, actually. I became closer to him, even though he never really changed when he came back from the depression. I learned more things about him, and I saw a different side of him that I didn’t see before. I don’t know what your parents are like, but my parents don’t tell me anything about their past. They don’t tell me anything about their history. And he actually started telling me stories about his life. I wish that… if he had told me these things before, I might not have been so adamant to fight with him about everything. I also learned things from his siblings and his friends about their lives that he would never have told me from his experience and it also helped me understand him better. I think there’s also a mix of, as I grew older, I matured a little bit more. And as my dad and mom grew older, they mellowed out a little bit.
There is a very intentional choice that you made where the dad doesn’t really speak that much throughout the film. Everything that we learn about him is through the family.
That’s the way it was, for me, for both my parents actually. I had to learn from other people. When I was younger, I just figured it wasn’t a big deal. But as I grew older, I wanted to find out more about my family history, and I talked to their brothers and sisters and their cousins. This image changed as I grew older because I learned so much more about who they were, and what they had to go through to get to this country and raise me.
Each character is going through various struggles, Margaret with her Dad’s treatment, Roy’s divorce, and Larry with growing up. Why did you give each character their background?
I really love looking at the dynamics of sibling order, where you were born as a sibling, and how that affects your personality and who you are, so I started with them. When I wrote the scripts, I wanted these three siblings to be in very different places, and also have certain responsibilities because of their order. In a lot of Asian American families, the firstborn, especially if they’re a male, usually all the responsibilities are put on them, and they’re expected to guide the family. I found that it would add more to the story if the firstborn male couldn’t handle those responsibilities. The middle child, Margaret, is the strongest personality, but also the peacekeeper, and the youngest, or the baby, has few responsibilities and still is being taken care of, still lives with the family.
Why would you say it took depression for resolution to come about?
In a dysfunctional family, where they don’t all get along, not a lot of time is spent together, and because it’s often easier to not fight. Everyone lives their own lives separately. It’s easier, and it’s “fine” if everyone feels like it works. A family like this needs a crisis. It forces them to deal with their problems, and recognize that they have a problem. Margaret has spent her life choosing to stay away and only comes home for Thanksgiving. When she goes home, she realizes her effect. It is only by being with the family, spending time with Larry and Roy, that she realizes the impact she has.
A core theme of the film is the idea of the American Dream, and it’s accompanied by this sense of immense sacrifice. A line that stood out to me in the film is when Margaret is confronting Dad and asking him what he has to be sad about, when he lives in a paid-off house, has money, and therefore has everything that a Taiwanese immigrant in America could want. What is it that Dad is upset about and what specifically were you attempting to convey in this scene?
At its base level, the American Dream for immigrants is coming to America, getting a big house, security, and money. Money is success, and in the fight to achieve this, the result is often lost relationships with your kids, the inability to process emotions for yourself, and loss of the joy of life. There’s a realization that achieving the “dream” doesn’t equate to happiness.
My dad relapsed, and I wrote him a letter saying these kinds of things. In the movie, Margaret outlines this in simple terms to show him why he’s sick and not just sad. She outlines happiness in a logical, physical format so that it’s digestible to him. Dad’s cause of depression is getting laid off, which is a big deal. My dad worked for General Electric, he was the oldest in the family, and because of his age, it isn’t easy to get another job. He thought, “I had the golden ticket and lost it.”
The glove mystery… it was never explained why Margaret’s dad lied about doing what he did. Why did he tell Margaret that the gift was from him?
The aunt said he never learned to be sweet and tender, and only knew how to push people further. He never had an idea of how to make her happy but when his sister sends the glove, he realizes this is how, and that’s just how this character thinks. That’s the beauty in him, it’s what makes him a complex and flawed character.
While Margaret and siblings are discussing treatment for Dad, Mom is not taking the situation seriously?
This was specifically to showcase how this family is not prepared and doesn’t want to deal with it. Sophie (the mom) thinks Dad is being lazy and believes that everything is going to be fine. Margaret recognizes a need to discuss what’s needed to support him, not just pills but talk and encouragement, and someone to get him to go out. Even with medication, it takes at least six weeks for it to start working, but there’s no quick fix, they needed to realize that they needed to commit.
What was the best artistic choice you made in the making of Dealing with Dad, what do you think it added?
Definitely casting. I wanted real characters. For Margaret, I wanted to find someone that was not only funny and dramatic but had range. Comedy is a lot harder than drama. I saw Ally on Wrecked on TBS, and she was really funny on the show. I did research on her and felt like she could do it. She understood the role because of her own family [problems], last Christmas, her brothers got in a fistfight. I was considering Hayden Szeto for Larry. Ally asked me who I was thinking of casting, and it turns out the two were friends. She texted him and asked if he would be interested in the role. Then there’s Peter Kim for Roy, who was one of the last roles to be cast. Peter’s a comedian, but also has a vulnerable side on screen. The three all got along extremely well and made the characters feel real.
What was the hardest challenge in making Dealing with Dad?
70 percent of the film was filmed in a house 45 minutes east of Los Angeles. We wanted a house that felt like it was trapped in time in the 90s, one where they stopped buying furniture in 1992. A house that came with brown furniture when they bought it. It was 100 degrees out, with no air conditioner, and it would be 95 degrees in the house all the time. We would film morning scenes, where it’s supposed to be cold, and as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, everyone’s throwing off their jackets. Ally would even be wearing ice packs taped to her body, and I was sweating the entire time.
How long did filming take?
14 days during a three-week period. At the same time we were filming, we were also dealing with COVID guidelines and the film union. No one ended up getting COVID, and on the 14th day, the last day of filming, I was hugging my Director of Photography and felt wetness rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t realize how stressed I was until I started crying. We took the steps and made sure everyone was vaccinated. Everyone lived in an AirBnB and avoided exposure.
I’m incredibly pleased with the job of the cast. We played 16 fests, half were Asian American and the other half weren’t. At each festival, we were surprised by the laughing and crying that was happening, and were glad to find that the movie was relatable to everyone. I wanted to create characters that were universally likable.
Margaret definitely. Ally really made her come alive and understood her.
Are you working on anything currently, what are your plans for the future?
We’re currently figuring out the distribution for Dealing with Dad and going to fests. I’m writing the script for the sequel to my last film, Find Me, and getting another project off the ground. It’s a film noir, about Japanese internment camps.
This interview was conducted on-site at the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival by Nancy Jiang. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Find upcoming ‘Dealing with Dad’ screenings here . Photos courtesy of Dealing with Dad, LLC.
A New York City native, Nancy Jiang is a budding journalist covering music, arts and entertainment, and politics. One day she hopes to interview Frank Ocean, but for now, she’s bumping Endless and spending all her money on vinyl and concerts.