The push and pull of love and healing: Roxy Shih on ‘List of a Lifetime’
Taiwanese American film director Roxy Shih is used to delivering us scares — her directing credits include 2018’s feature film Painkillers to this year’s Facebook watch horror series Mira Mira. However, with her newest feature List of a Lifetime, Shih shows that tenderness and resilience is well within her range of storytelling.
List of a Lifetime focuses on Brenda (Kelly Hu) who is shocked by a breast cancer diagnosis and is spurred to reconnect with her biological daughter Talia (Sylvia Kwan) who was given up for adoption at a young age — fearing that she may inherit the same illness. Their eventual reunion reframes what it is they truly want out of their lives.
I sat down with Roxy Shih at the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival to talk about her film and the empowering dynamics of healing and autonomy. This interview has been edited for clarity.
In your film, the main characters are reckoning with personal wounds through no fault of their own. Can you tell me how you were able to capture what healing could look like?
I feel like I was very fortunate because I had Shannen Doherty, Kelly Hu, Patricia Velasquez — all these amazing actors came and contributed their own personal experiences and their experiences with breast cancer whether it was themselves or their family. Shannen Doherty currently has stage 4 and she’s acting and directing and doing all these things. Everyone has a different experience with this, and most of us experience grief and regret and loss.
In our community — like in Taiwan, my family doesn’t talk about it. It is very hard for us to talk about cancer. It’s very awkward, it’s very uncomfortable — might as well not talk about it at all. But hopefully with this movie we can gently remind everybody that it is important to talk about it. We shouldn’t avoid it. It is preventative if done at the right time. It’s a story about mortality and making the most of the time you have left and living without any regrets. I think it’s very beautiful.
I was lucky enough to get the script when my producer came to me with it and she was just like, “Take 15 minutes to read the first 15 pages of it — I know you’re burned out with a ton of other work.” Once I read it, I said, “I have to do this.” It’s so personal to everyone who came on. They all had a personal stake in it. We all know someone who has gone through it.
The relationship between Brenda and Talia is so complicated and relatable. What were the challenges of depicting that complexity and how were you able to overcome them?
We have every single character experience within us as storytellers — whether it’s acting, directing, or writing, we live all of these people we create on the screen. So for me, this was the first movie I got to explore a mother and daughter relationship. Most people know me for genre films. I murder everybody on screen. I’m a total science fiction and horror queen. For this project, I was like, “Ah! Feelings!” There’s so much to dig between mother and daughter. I got to amplify and give context to their character.
I worked this through with Sylvia, Kelly, and Shannen to really understand where it all comes from — the resentment, the regret, and the lost time. I think we all know what that feels like. To be able to explore that more deeply and add my own seasonings to this enriched it even further. Whatever ending it is, whether she goes or she stays or conquers or doesn’t, it feels earned. That time together is earned. Everybody was really on board and had immense care. Every time on set there was that certain magic because of our personal stakes. The characters were very real.
I remember Kelly would carry Brenda everywhere with her. There was so much grief because [Brenda] lived a life with almost no meaning. She lived for everyone else, but herself with all her trauma. It could go very dark, so we were mindful to keep it kind of happy. That’s what life is like, right? I didn’t get to murder everybody in this movie like all my other ones, but I got to explore the dynamic of what love truly is. Does it mean to push away someone or pull someone closer? Sometimes it’s both.
I think the theme I resonated with the most was autonomy. Being able to authentically choose and advocate for yourself. Could you talk about what autonomy feels like to you and how you explored that through the film?
I was really lucky in this project because the producers and I have worked together at least two other times on other things. So they trust me a lot with what I can do. I picked all my key crew. All my girls, all my queers, all my Asians… you know what I’m saying? It feels like your community is working with you. The actresses felt safe with what they were exploring.
For me, autonomy is about letting go, but giving everyone a gentle push towards a certain direction. I’m not about micromanagement. It’s having a baby and letting it organically grow, and then nurturing it as it grows. That’s what autonomy is to me. Every time I do pre-viz or read a script, the map is the spine, and everyone else is the fat, flesh, blood, skin– and you have to listen to everybody, but what your job is as a director is to gently guide. That’s the beauty of it.
The script itself already had a very strong spine. Everything else is elevating it, and navigating it toward a direction we could all be proud of. I was really lucky that I got to work with my friends. That’s not something you get all the time as a for-hire director, and that’s why I’m very, very proud of this movie. And I’m so happy to have it play at LAAPFF because it’s my home festival.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort in-person at the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on September 24, 2021.