Scrutiny over appearance is a universal experience for women. Repeatedly exposed to unattainable weight and body expectations promoted by the mainstream media and magazines for decades, women (and to an extent, men) are, as a result, constantly scrutinizing the contents of their plates. Comments from nosy relatives who feel empowered to police young women’s appetites are so ubiquitous, they've become punchlines in family comedies, tainting the experience for young girls trying to come into their own at a crucial stage in their development. It's the exact moment filmmaker Amy B Tiong explores in her short film Bitter Sweet, which weaves moody, David Lynch-ian aesthetics with a coming-of-age journey intimately familiar to young people.
Amy's parents opened a Chinese food restaurant after moving to the United States shortly before Amy was born. "They grew up poor," says Tiong, "so being able to provide for me and my sisters in whatever way was a blessing. This included the food on our table." Over the years, her relationship with food moved from innocent to toxic to healing.
Now in process of obtaining her masters degree in nutrition and working toward her certified nutrition specialist certification, Tiong hopes her film starts a conversation around why our society has made it OK to place a woman's appearance under a microscope, free to be judged and commented on by anyone.
Following the debut of Bitter Sweet, Tiong spoke to Elite Daily about her creative process and what she'd like people to take away from her story.
Elite Daily: How did the idea of Bitter Sweet come to be?
Amy B Tiong: Films are an opportunity to give voice to marginalized stories. Bitter Sweet is about exploring all the areas of myself that I felt uncomfortable with in order to give light to those parts. I hoped that by being vulnerable, I can open conversations and allow others who feel the same insecurities to find power in their stories and in their bodies.
ED: Describe your artistic approach to how you wanted to visualize this story.
ABT: I wanted the visualization to feel like looking into a mirror. I chose fleeting images like eating cake or emerging from the tub and brought them to Briana and Heather, [my director of photography and dance choreographer,] so we could work together to build this piece. A lot of the movement then actually guided the visuals. Since this piece was about body, movement helped express parts of the story I didn’t know how to verbalize.
ED: Did you draw from specific inspiration when it came to the creative direction of the film?
ABT: I draw inspiration from music and photographs. One inspiration was this song called “Half Light” by Banners. The song is very repetitive and taxing in a way, and that’s what I wanted the film to feel like at times: running in circles. I saw an image recently of when I was 5, and despite being chubby, I was posing very model-esque. I remember being pleasantly surprised by how carefree I looked. I realized this was likely because at that age, we have a minimal sense of self-image and food relations. The running was about trying to run back to this freeing mentality.
ED: Can you describe the first time you remember feeling negative toward food?
ABT: I think most of my life I had some subconscious belief that thinner equaled "better," but I didn’t always think that food equaled "bigger." Every lead female character in a film was thin, though, and for me, that meant that being thin led to more opportunities. I remember thinking: Oh, if I just lost X amount of weight, I could achieve Y. Of course, that is not how it is or should be.
Being a woman, the media somehow wants us to be the “cool girl” that eats burgers seven days a week but remains a size 2. They are asking for something that is scientifically impossible for many of us. Over the years, the more I realized I was being pressured to fit into some impossible mold, the angrier I got. I decided to channel this energy to help others, hence why I am currently getting a degree in nutrition.
ED: In the film you say, “Though I’m Asian American, I always felt detached from the Asian part of myself, but the two things I did adopt were the glutinous appreciation of food and the closeting of one’s emotions.” Can you share a bit more about how your familial relationships influenced your mindset toward food?
ABT: I feel food problems and our relationship with food are just not talked about in older generations. They have an “if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist” mentality. But the reality is the more you stifle anything, the more room you give it to ruminate and grow. Being an artist created an outlet to talk about these things.
ED: Your film culminates in a hopeful message. Can you tell us what the journey toward healthier boundaries with food looked like for you?
ABT: Having food on the table is a gift, so learning ways to accept that gift is how I move forward. The best analogy I like for food is food as fuel. You wouldn’t want to fill your car with the wrong gas, but you also need some fuel. It is about finding the balance of what makes you feel good. For me, that is having a healthy balanced diet but not stressing about when I just want cake on a Wednesday.
ED: In the video, you mentioned a moment with an older woman. How did you go about setting mental boundaries around people’s commentary on your body?
ABT: Being someone who lost a considerable amount of weight and realized how differently people treated me when I was thinner came with its own set of challenges. However, when I realized my appearance is not a direct reflection of my mental state, that helped me not stress about it as much. Life is not about before and after pictures; it’s about always progressing to be the best form of yourself and feeling good in your own skin.
ED: What advice would you give to someone who is dealing with similar challenges?
ABT: To find ways to talk about it and reach out to someone who specializes in intuitive eating. The best way of overcoming any challenge is to find ways to fuel it into action, creation, or both.
ED: As an Asian American filmmaker, how has your background informed the type of stories you would like to tell?
ABT: I want to create more representation for Asian Americans. A lot of my insecurities come from the simple fact that lead characters never looked like me. I was so far from a standard that I felt I was aiming at the abyss in terms of what I thought I had to be.
I want to tell stories that feature Asian females as leads and have their roles be more than the “smart math kid.” Hitchcock and Lynch are two of my favorite filmmakers. I would love to expand on the experimental thriller drama to tell stories with purpose about the current climate on how women and minorities are still being treated. It is about time we play the heroine in our own stories.
I have often been told that as a female minority from a lower social-economical class, I would have to work harder. I found some generous hands along the way, whether [that was] from scholarships I’d earned or opportunities like this one to make a film. All this has taught me to be resilient, honest, and humble. So I hope that the stories I tell are such.
- Director: Amy B Tiong
- Director of Photography: Briana Man
- Line Producer: Kadi Tsang
- Editor: Meline Rosales
- Assistant Camera: Will Meyers
- Choreographer: Heather Corwyn
- "Bitter Sweet" Original Music by Andy Bauer
- Featuring Violin by Christopher Brett Williams
- Featured Photos by Lucy Smith-Williams
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.