Ji’s Story

Our past is often filled with landmines. Mine is literal. Somehow, most of us appear to come out of it unscathed, as if the Reaper never grazed us with his scythe. Yet, in daily life everything appears normal. It’s glamorous to be in the entertainment arts where you have a cool film, a cool book, a cool website. All that is great. But what brought me to this coolness? At the end of the day, my work can only be defined by how I can transform dark into light, and pain into beauty.

I share my life experiences to shed the PR layer that provides only the superficial account of what I do and why I do it. To be born as an artist means to heal self and others. The word “art,” beyond beautification, means to fit together, join, or “make whole.” But first, an artist must understand her own brokenness to mend a broken world.

War

A Night Sea Journey, where all was black. Somehow, darkness strove to protect us.

During the inception of the Vietnam War, my grandparents were wise to immigrate to Laos before chaos broke. Many Vietnamese people lived in diaspora in Laos. It was here that my Vietnamese parents met and fell in love. I was born in the city of Vientiane, hardly a city by first world standards. It’s been told that during the war, Laos was the smallest parcel of land in the world riddled with the most bombs (2.5 millions to be exact).

My city had dirt roads that ran in front of our house. We lived next door to a famous Buddhist temple dedicated to the Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, whom in Western terms, is similar to Mother Mary. The flow of energy from that temple would shape my mission in life—to heal the Divine Feminine that underlies the tone of my work.

As refugees of war, we fled Laos through treacherous terrain, separated. My father stayed behind to conceal our plans while my mother and her children: three little girls and one baby boy, were smuggled onto a small boat. We crossed the Mekong river during a torrential storm, then fled on foot through the jungle to reunite at a later date with my father, who escaped Laos separately.

We eventually arrived in America with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a few photographs my mother salvaged. I grew up in the housing projects of Denver, Colorado, in a long period of darkness, facing racial hatred within a hostile and violent community, combined with homophobia by the predominant right-wing conservative values of the period. It was a future-less prospect.

My mom and dad had no formal education and didn’t know a word of English. Somehow, they worked their way out of poverty and put four kids through college.

My heritage has a rich history which I will never know. Before leaving Laos, my parents visited the Vietnam Embassy to get our visa to immigrate to France. The entire building was bombed that fateful day—the documents were destroyed by fire. All my relatives had attained their visas to flee to France. My immediate family was cut off from the clan.

As destiny would prevail, my immediate family would be a six-person unit, alone in America. We had no tribe, and for years, I lamented our demise. Today, I realize I am most fortunate. Being cut off freed me from the oppressive pressures of conforming to familial and cultural Vietnamese customs.  So our so-called misfortune cast off major influences that would suppress my personality and therefore shape my artistic expression. With greater perspective, the awful twist of fate was a blessing in disguise.

How I Learned to Draw

My artistic path started with watching my father doodle at his desk. I am my father’s daughter: a lone wolf, misanthrope, too real to conform, resilient, and tragic black sheep—trying to unravel myself from the wool.

When I was a child, I copied everything my father did. When he spent hours taking apart clock radios and gadgets to put them back together, I sat next to him and pretended to do the same. His creative, meditative mind was like the Dalai Lama obsessed with spending hours fixing the inner guts of a wristwatch. If my dad were not so emotionally dark, he would have been a monk. My creative, melancholic saintliness, dire call for truth in everything comes from my father: a refugee who lost his family to the Vietnam War, rejected all surviving relatives, determined to live alone, as if in non-existence.

My dad loved to draw eyeballs, so I drew eyeballs. I kept drawing and drawing. In first grade, I had a crush on a little American boy and wanted to marry him, so I grabbed scrap paper stacked near the school window sill and drew out my life plan with him—illustrating our wedding with lots of hearts and happy faces. He would crumple up all my drawings and throw them away. This never stopped me.

Motivated by love, I drew 20-50 sheets of sketches per day. If that boy did not reject me, I may never have become an artist.

A  group of teachers visited the class and gossiped about me. One day, they appeared and removed me from the class and sent me to a “gifted and talented” program. My artistic path was cultivated from that period onward…until I developed my own mind.

Poetry, Film, and those Four Boys

At fifteen, I wrote poetry. My love for writing and the visual arts led me to take a film & television course at a trade school that had a career-training program for high school students. I was one of five students. I was the only girl and nobody wanted to make films with me.

The four boys were the epitome of the people I would later meet in my life in film, from film schools to industry and the red carpet march toward Hollywood glory.

The first things these boys were eager to do was whip out the dolly to do tracking shots and emulate Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, I lost myself for hours, immersed in splicing film at the editing table.

My high school film teacher was a square broadcast guy. We argued a lot. From the onset of my love affair with filmmaking, I was fiercely independent and fought with anyone who tried to tell me I couldn’t do something, simply because they didn’t understand my vision.

In the past, society loved me when I conformed and created images they could understand. But once I developed an independent mind, my own voice, style, and created something new—I was treated as disobedient and threatening.

Throughout my filmmaking path, I would meet reminders of the four boys who wouldn’t work with me. Those four boys in film schools, those four boys in Hollywood, those four boys in the indie scene, those four boys who would be investors dictating to society their idea of cool, and the four boys who would be the judges for film festivals and have the final say on my film’s worthiness.

Like all pioneers, I faced depths of loneliness, knowing the possibility there is not one person that can do what I do.

The Closet

There was a girl sitting in the closet, editing on what looked like a time machine.

After high school, I was miraculously admitted to Colorado College, a highly competitive liberal arts college. During my first few years there, I was immersed in creative writing and spent a lot of time in the closet.

Yes, the closet.

I frequently visited the basement of the Audio/Visual Department of Colorado College to pick up equipment for a work-study job. My college job entailed hooking up mikes for guest speakers at public events.

I noticed a huge assortment of film and video equipment nobody used, collecting dust against the wall. One day, I asked the head of the department if I could check them out.

The head of A/V let me borrow anything I wanted. Nobody was shooting film or video. No one knew how. I started writing scripts and shooting documentary interviews with my friends.

I majored in Fine Arts and worked out a deal with Maureen, a painting professor from Boston, to allow me to create films as an independent study. I made short films, experimental films, poetry films, and documentaries.

I went to the head of A/V to ask about editing equipment. He wheeled out a linear video editing station, covered in layers of dust, and said, “No one has ever used this. If you want, you can figure it out.” It didn’t even have an instruction manual.

We arranged for the machine to be stored inside a spare janitor’s closet on the third floor of Armstrong Hall, an academic building. He even threw in a key. For several months, I spent my nights and weekends inside a closet.

Students walked by and wondered what all these beeping error sounds and squealing chipmunk voices scrolling back and forth were.

There was a girl sitting in the closet, editing on what looked like a time machine. The interesting thing was that I was loud, and it was amazing no one ever complained, considering the intense studies taking place in that building.

Maureen, one day, sat me down and said, “Why don’t you pursue filmmaking?”

I told her I couldn’t, and I found every reason not to.

I was just one person, a small Asian girl. What power did I have to make “movies”? It seemed like an impossible endeavor. If Colorado College had a film program, I would have enrolled. This was in the dark ages, where if you wanted to study film, you moved to Hollywood or New York or attended an art school with a film division.

Shamanic Visions & Now

I didn’t choose filmmaking—it chose me. I was caught by it.

I was having shamanic visions. I only recognize them as such today in retrospect.

While lying in my dorm room at night, supernatural flashes of light shocked my body. Whenever the light struck me, I felt this luminous, warm glow that flooded my being with infinite worlds of possibilities. When the light ripped through my spine and quaked my body, I would get an entire vision of a movie living inside me.

I didn’t choose filmmaking—it chose me. I was caught by it. Once it caught me, I felt a terrible burden, holding these visions.

I had a Big Dream:

In the dream, I was at an ocean, where everything was blue. Blue elephants bathed along the shore. In the distance, a man walked toward me. He carried over his shoulder an archaic tripod that was huge and heavy, like the first ones invented in the film industry. This man was my father, yet he was not my father. He was the Father (you know, the big guy—Master, Healer…G’d).

He handed me the tripod, and I felt this strength and conviction, knowing I would make movies, and everything would be OK. The dream lingered with me for days, weeks, and months. I fought to ignore it, but it was like falling in love. I could not forget the powerful feeling.

A healer spiritually mentored me at that time, a Jungian shaman. He understood the nature of my dream. He taught me about failure and how it should be perceived. He said, “Failure is just like meeting a dead end on the road. What’s the worst that can happen? All you do is turn around. It’s not the end of the world.” More importantly, he confirmed the sacredness of this dream, as it was guiding my path.

The power of embracing that dream led me to move to New York to pursue my filmmaking studies. I stayed in New York and lived there most of my adult life.

There have been many crucibles, but this is only half of my artistic journey. I’ve come to terms with being a filmmaker but there’s still a missing component.

I have yet to embrace my shamanhood, for which no schools or training existed. This sacred component completes me as an artist. It explains why film chose me and determines why and how I would carry a vision—and to carry that home.

It has taken me a lifetime to discover the metaphor of the tripod in my Big Dream. It spoke about more than filmmaking. The tripod represents holding up the legs of this world, like the great Trinity, with a vision.

Your born-again-poet,

Ji Strangeway
Springtime 2017, Los Angeles

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