.Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó Film

Embrace the lighter side of life

Sean Wang begins his Academy Award®-nominated documentary short Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó in his grandmothers’ shared bedroom. He zooms in on their closed eyes and sleeping feet. They’re roommates in a suburban Fremont home. 

The sound of flatulence makes a cameo appearance, accompanied by a comic recitative on the attendant odor. Having survived their husbands, Wang constructs a merry widows’ entr’acte. 

Glimpses of their past lives do seep into the narrative with brief reminiscences. Framed photos of their younger selves or with various family members show up but Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó’s primary relationships in the film are with each other and with Wang himself. 

From the start, the director is a disembodied presence. We hear his voice in an early scene then he recedes into the shadows to become a playful, companionable and the observant eye of the camera. He and the cinematographer, Sam Davis, often place the lens at a sparrow’s point of view, perched up high on a steady branch surveying the activity below before swooping in to face the grandmothers at eye-level.

Wang observes Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó’s daily routines while they exercise, clean house, eat meals, watch TV and read the newspaper. But he also interacts and engages with them, sometimes providing directorial prompts that encourage them to “act” for the camera. From the get-go, they break the fourth wall poking back at and making fun of their grandson. And, at the same time, they’re clearly enjoying themselves and ready for their close-ups.   

“It’s not like I had to convince them to do the movie,” said Wang. “I hang out with them in their bedroom all the time. Like if they’re napping, I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, what’s up?’ We have a very silly and jovial and lighthearted, humorous relationship with one another. We’re always dancing together.” 

Wang said the genesis of Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó sprang from a 2018 Christmas “card” video they made together. In the video, Wài Pó tries to feed him blueberries but he declines. “Then she looks into the camera and slaps me across the face and I fall to the floor,” Wang recalled. Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó then decide to tie him up before embarking on more mischief-making. The video ends with the words “Happy Holidays” on the screen—after they’ve killed and buried him in the backyard. “We shot it in two hours, but it’s that kind of silliness and humor that I know they’re so down for.”   

Wang’s film doesn’t settle for easy mockery. Nor does he reduce his grandmothers to caricatures. “Sam Davis, our cinematographer and one of our producers, likes to say that this film is really a reminder that you don’t always need the most high-profile talent to make something,” Wang said. “Oftentimes the things that have the most heart are the things that you have the most intimate access to.”

In addition to the verité observations, the humor, including an arm wrestling skit, Wang made it a point to introduce painful subjects from their histories that he didn’t know much about. “I wanted it to be a personal archive for our family, to have this three-dimensional holistic portrait of who they were so that a decade from now, when they’re potentially not with us anymore, we have a record of who they were,” he said. “Not just this moment in time but also how they feel about their lives that could be a memento for us.” 

“My job as a filmmaker was—how do we have a film that doesn’t feel like tonal whiplash?” Wang said. “Even though we’re balancing a huge mosaic of tones, how do you put them next to each other and feel like these are the same people?” Part of finding that balance was a process of discovery, a byproduct of the filming. 

“You’re on this emotional roller coaster with them that feels honest to their existence,” he said. “Some days are lighthearted and playful. Some days they read the newspaper and see something triggering, or that reminds them of the fragility of life.” 

Setting up cameras in their bedroom wasn’t a jarring experience for Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó. For Wang and his grandmothers, filming them felt like a genuine extension of what their family life is like. “The access and intimacy that I share with my grandmothers,” he said, “that’s the heart of the movie.”   
Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó is now playing on Disney+ and Hulu.

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