Thơ ventures into romance as a Vietnamese-American panromantic asexual looking for acceptance and respect.

THƠ is a short film directed by Heather Muriel Nguyễn and Jake Villadolid that celebrates the existence of asexual and Queer Asian-Americans with unapologetic authenticity. The short was made to prove that they deserve to tell their own powerful stories. The film also claims to feature the only asexual Asian-American girl in media – so far.

THƠ (“tuh”) is an emotional and visceral memoir. The story depicts how assumed consent and sexual entitlement to a person’s body can dismantle their sense of reality. The filmmakers successfully exhibit the distinctive experience of taking on others’ emotional baggage through sexual harm. With frenetic pacing and non-linear storytelling the audience gets a powerful perspective on the full experience. Challenging the misconception of asexuality being something to be fixed, and reclaims it as a valid Queer identity, despite being misunderstood even within the LGBTQIA+ community as just a phase.

We caught up with Heather and Jake who told us a little more on the concept and making of the film:

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Can you tell us what inspired you to bring this story to life?

Heather: I made THƠ to reclaim my story and ownership over my body and mind, three months after the film’s final events of sexual trauma happened to me. I’ve always been drawn to visceral storytelling as a means to understand and cope with my experiences, and building a passionate team intent on creating this story in closed sets and safe spaces for our cast made it a healing and empowering process.

Jake: When Heather came to me with this story in 2019 I was initially skeptical and somewhat nervous because of how different it was from my previous body of work. But as I talked to her more and delved deeper into what made this story tick I realized it encapsulated a story of being misunderstood, and coming to terms with who you are as a person regardless of what others may subject you to.

The film holds a cutting pace which works well with the theme, was this planned from the beginning or did it come through during the edit?

Heather: In the midst of 2020, we didn’t know how to make what we filmed click for both me and Jake. I was steadily absorbing how to edit from our collective notes to our previous editors, until we reached a point where we just didn’t know if we could finish it.

My solution was for me to edit the scenes with the frenetic pacing and non-linear storytelling that matched how my brain, particularly with morality OCD, conjured and constantly relived the events that inspired the film. I stopped editing once the traumatic scenes made me feel in my body what those events had made me feel in the moment. Anything less visceral and exact felt dishonest.

It was excruciating to meticulously rewatch those scenes until they undid my fresh healing and reestablished my traumatized body’s distrust with my mind. But I was committed to show exactly what it was like for an asexual and anxious Vietnamese-American girl like me to go through that, for the chance to make anyone who resonates with my story feel less alone, and emboldened to trust themselves.

Jake: The decision to structure the film in emotional order as opposed to chronological order was the biggest shift in post production. We decided to edit in a way that really pushes the audience to experience Thơ’s emotions and difficulties from as personal a space as possible, rather than just watching the different situations play out on a screen.

What was the most challenging scene for you to film?

Heather: The most challenging scene for us, I think, to film was the synesthetic scene in which Thơ dissociates after having sex with Leo, because of how physically tricky it was for our camera operator Marcus to stand on a soft mattress over me and Malik, while holding the heavy RED camera.

Jake: For me, it was the fact that we only had one location to shoot 90% of the film in. The team did a great job shifting the lighting and production design to contribute to the different feels but ultimately it came down to a game of angles.

What has this film taught you about filmmaking?

Heather: Making this film taught me that I don’t need permission to gather crews and create films, learning from people passionate about different aspects of production and post-production. THƠ made me realize that the visceral, emotional intensity with which I navigate the world is conducive for vibrant worlds with which my communities resonate.

Jake: You have to have guts to make a film like this. You have to be willing to go there and not shy away, to be visceral and painful and raw, or you’re doing the subject material a disservice. And none of that is easy.

Do you have any tips or advice to offer fellow filmmakers?

Heather: I encourage aspiring filmmakers to pursue the stories that make them feel alive or more whole, and not ask for permission to seek the knowledge, skills, and collaborators to turn those stories into films. Every film set hits unexpected stumbling blocks, so with every film you make, the spontaneous problem-solving builds your creative resilience, which I feel is a win no matter whether anyone sees your film or if it turns out the way you thought it would at the beginning.

Jake: The more personal the story, the more it will resonate with others. On a certain level it feels counterintuitive because you would think taking a more broad approach would lend to universal appeal, but I’ve found the more honest and personal you are in your storytelling, the easier it comes through to the audience.

What do you hope people will take away from Thơ?

Heather: I wanted to equip asexual folks of Color like me with the film and its visceral metaphors to help them hold their own and speak against anyone who tries to “fix” them with sex or teach them to be “normal,” like my past partners tried to do with me. And maybe audiences who resonate with the characters based on those partners would also realize that asexuality is a valid Queer identity and not something to be proven wrong.

Jake: I hope people who see our film come away with not only a greater understanding for asexuality, but also a willingness to learn and appreciate those who live in circles well outside their own sphere of influence.

What are your favorite films?

Heather: Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy and Alice Wu’s The Half of It

Jake: Rear Window

And your favorite short films?

Heather: Kevin J. Nguyễn’s beautiful Blue Suit full of queer yearning, Jeannie Nguyen’s deliciously comedic Sigh Gone, and Carly Usdin’s deeply relatable Misdirection

Jake: Last year at Outfest we saw Alyssa Lerner’s Break In. It was so much fun and really hilarious!