Tisch Alumni Spotlight: Alle Hsu '16

Wednesday, Jan 12, 2022

Alle Hsu’ 16 (MFA, Kanbar Institute, Graduate Film) is no stranger to a good story. Hsu, a graduate of the final class to go through Tisch Asia, is the great-granddaughter of famed romantic Chinese poet, Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, an important cultural figure in China due to his revolutionary approach to poetry and his rejection of conventional Chinese norms of the 20th century. Her great-grandfather’s life has been the subject of much discussion in Chinese culture, and because of his influence and the three primary women in his life, his story has been parlayed into a popular TV series, and most recently two separate musical productions. 

Today, Hsu is a director and producer living in Orange County, CA, looking to tell her own story while still maintaining ties to her family history. She was most recently a resident in the SFFILM FilmHouse Residency program, and in October 2019, she was the Featured Artist in Film in Kearny Street Workshop’s 20th APAture Arts Festival. Hsu has directed five short films in Singapore, Hong Kong, France, Orange County, CA, and Long Island, NY, respectively. She is currently developing her first feature film Queens, as well as a project about the Vincent Chin case, and a feature film about her great-grandmother with the working title The Poet’s Wife.

NYU Tisch Alumni Relations got the chance recently to learn more about her journey and process of becoming a director and producer, and how this past year has impacted her work.

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Can you tell us a bit about how you first discovered your passion for filmmaking?

I fell in love with filmmaking in high school because I realized I could use film and photography as a medium for storytelling, as I was already developing my visual language. I was inspired by both of my parents’ interests and experiences. My dad grew up going to see feature films and live programs at Radio City Music Hall with his family, which was a special event. His family would plan to arrive by 11 am so that they could pay the lower ticket price of 99 cents. It was truly serendipitous and nostalgic to attend my graduation ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, the same place where my dad fell in love with film. My mom is an artist and fashion designer, and they both introduced me to a love of art and photography. Film felt like a perfect combination of the two of them.

In addition, when I was eight years old, I went to China for the first time with my family and learned about my great-grandparents' stories and their impact and historical significance in China. In high school, I knew I had to tell their stories through film. During my teenage years I had begun to realize the importance of carrying on my family’s legacy. One way I could do that was by telling their stories through film, especially since their stories are the kind that rarely get told in mainstream American media.

 

Was there a specific movie you remember inspiring you when you were young?

There are two!

In the Mood for Love, and Crash (although I'm embarrassed because I think that one gets a lot of flack.) Growing up as an Asian American in Orange County and not really knowing LA that well at that point in my life, I loved Crash because of the way it interweaves the stories, the characters’ lives, and shows the city’s diversity.

I ended up connecting with Alexis Rhee, the Korean actress from Crash, while I was still in high school and asked her to read a script I had written for a 16 millimeter filmmaking class at USC’s summer film program. She read it, and she loved it! Despite Alexis not being available for the role, getting her feedback early in my career was rewarding.

I had a professor from Tisch Asia, Julian Goldberger, who suggested In the Mood for Love as a study for visual inspiration. Nowadays in filmmaking, many filmmakers love handheld camera work, and what he pointed out was the controlled handheld camera work in the film. What I loved about the film was the sense of intimacy conveyed between the main characters, the romantic longing, the lushness and beauty in the aesthetics and time period. It was the combination of those two films that first stimulated my interest in cinematic storytelling.

 

What inspired you to apply to Tisch Asia/Grad Film?

I wanted to continue studying film after college to develop my filmmaking style from documentary into narrative. The Media Studies program I did in my undergrad was individually directed, which meant I was able to tailor my study to what I was most interested in, and at the time I gravitated more towards documentary filmmaking. I saw grad school as an opportunity to dig deeper into my narrative storytelling skills.

After graduating I spent the year applying to schools. It came down to two programs for me—it was a hard decision to make, but after visiting the campus in Singapore and speaking with Tisch Asia students, I immediately fell in love with NYU. The students there told me about transitioning from the States and walked me through the program.

 

What surprised you the most about your experience with Tisch Asia/Grad Film?

Hmm, that's a good question. I mean, with Tisch Asia it's a hard one, just because we had to deal with the program closing. However, being part of the last class that finished out the program, the best and most surprising thing was how we came together. We all became leaders, for each other. And we supported one another.

Almost all of us were in a place that was foreign to us; we were all constantly learning something new. That’s a beautiful experience that I don't think many people get to have. Singapore really surprised a lot of us.

Singapore was a great hub from which to make films and tell stories about Asia. In our second year, I crewed on my classmates’ productions in the Philippines and South Korea, and I directed my own film in Hong Kong. Other classmates made their films in China, India, and Japan, to name a few. No other film school offered this kind of opportunity. Making films is challenging, but being able to do it in a new place was such an enriching and rewarding experience (and a good approximation for the challenges many professional film crews experience when shooting on location). The experience taught me to be a more humble, understanding, and caring filmmaker. Now, when I go to a new place to be a part of a production, I make it a priority to understand the people, the culture, and the history there. 

Despite the closing of our school, I felt empowered by the experiences I had there and I was inspired by my classmates’ success at festivals like Toronto, Austin, and Hong Kong. 

 

For your undergrad thesis at Scripps College, you created a documentary film, but transitioned into narrative storytelling in later years. How do you feel like the style of documentary filmmaking contributed to your current storytelling style?

Over the last few years, I have come to understand my voice a little bit more. I get excited about telling stories that cover the depth and breadth of human life, whether they’re documentaries or narrative films. Because I’m an Asian American woman, I’m also interested in exploring stories about my culture and history. 

My time at Tisch Asia and in the SFFilm FilmHouse residency helped me figure out how to do both. Of course, there were times when I had to stop and ask myself—why am I motivated by these ideas? But that’s just the process of learning and growing and workshopping the tools to tell a good story. You’re gaining all the tools that are necessary, but it's not until later that you find perspective on what is driving those interests.

All the stories that I’ve been exploring have had to do with something personal. The personal and the specific can be universal, if expressed in the right way. While we are seeing a rise in Asian and Asian American stories being told, there is still room for more in mainstream media. There is power in future generations seeing themselves on screen. I feel that it is important to tell stories that will bring the US and China together, to see what we have in common, and recognize the beauty in what’s different about our cultures and societies.

I’ve come to realize that although my great-grandparents’ stories are well-known in China, it’s actually more important for the West to know their stories—especially now, when there has been so much racism towards Asians during the pandemic. Knowing that a narrative film comes from something true, grounds viewers in reality and I feel this allows them to see the world and people around them differently. 

 

You were a recent resident at the SFFILM FilmHouse from 2019 - 2020. Can you tell us a bit about this program and your feature film, Queens?

The SFFilm Festival is the longest-running film festival in America, and I was selected for its one-year residency program from 2019-2020. The program brings together such an incredible community of people who are each doing really meaningful work and telling important stories. I was in a cohort of 30-40 filmmakers that was split between documentary and narrative filmmakers. It was a beautiful and supportive community, and I met some of my closest film friends there. One of those friends is actually Tisch alumna Liz Anderson. 

I was grateful to be accepted into the FilmHouse Residency with my first feature in development, Queens, with fellow Tisch alumna Jake Lee Hanne. It's inspired by a true story about a shy Chinese American girl who is thrust into the 1964 World’s Fair Miss Unisphere competition. But it really focuses on a Chinese immigrant family living in Queens, New York.

It's been amazing to find an empowering community and, finally, to be able to share something that feels like it's in a good spot.

 

How has the pandemic changed the way you conceptualize and go about creating your films?

To be quite honest, I'm somebody who's struggled a lot with writing, so one of the silver linings of the pandemic was that it gave me the time and space to focus on my creative process through writing workshops and writers groups.

I was recommended to a writing workshop, Writing Through the Change, led by the Joan Scheckel Filmmaking Lab (also a Tisch alumna!), which has graduated such Tisch alumni as Jessica Sharzer, Josh Radnor, and Bryce Dallas Howard. It was a wonderful experience being in a virtual space with so many people across the world and for all of us to be grounded in feeling, emotion, and connection.

I was selected for another workshop, the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab, through the non-profit Kearny Street Workshop in the Bay Area. We worked on poetry and personal essays and creative storytelling. It was an extraordinary experience that allowed me to step outside of film for a bit by putting words on paper. While I know that my film education was important, it was powerful to explore other kinds of creative outlets and other kinds of writing. 

Some of my closest friends from the SFFILM FilmHouse Residency formed a small writers group. We meet every week and review the materials we’ve shared with each other or discuss topics of how we’re moving through our projects and the industry. 

 

You’re currently involved in many mentorship programs that support emerging talent in historically underrepresented communities in film. Can you tell us about your work in these programs, and what inspired you to get involved?

Yes! I’m a member of Women in Film, and I'm so grateful to have gotten into their mentoring program in 2019, to work with a small group of other talented female directors. A couple of us still meet once a month, and support one another through our careers. 

In addition to that, since I graduated from college I’ve maintained a close relationship with the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. I am grateful that they recommended me for the inaugural CBS Leadership Pipeline Challenge. It’s a program started by CBS Vice President of Casting Lori Erickson where they discover underrepresented filmmakers through organizations that push for diversity and fund them to work in teams with junior employees at CBS and make short films for local Los Angeles nonprofits. My team was chosen to make a short film for the nonprofit organization SafeBAE, which promotes peer-to-peer mentoring to combat sexual harassment for teens. Our film was titled Unread. 

I am thankful to my friends from the SFFILM FilmHouse Residency for encouraging me to apply to labs and opportunities. With the feature film about my great-grandmother, I was accepted into the Cine Qua Non Lab Storylines Lab to develop the treatment. I was completely surprised and humbled to be a part of the writing lab/workshop intensive. It was an incredible experience, even if it was over Zoom. I was happy to see fellow NYU alumni Charlotte Rabate and Dania Bdeir, and learn about the stories that they are developing. With the help and guidance of our facilitator Christian Routh, we came up with the temporary title The Poet’s Wife.

 

What would you say to someone interested in pursuing a career as a director/producer today?

I think it's important for aspiring filmmakers to have people that you look up to in this industry. The journey is so different for everybody. It’s also important to have an open mind when it comes to the process, because sometimes as creatives we get disappointed by the rejections.

I believe that not every opportunity is meant for that moment, and every rejection is a lesson. That's one of the hardest things of being an artist, is going through the ups and downs. Somebody recently said to me that to look at rejection as an opportunity. I think that we can all learn from that, no matter what career path you're in.

As a filmmaker, I want to promote kindness and gratitude. You don’t need to be rude to someone or treat your cast or crew poorly in order to get a good performance as a director. I’ve worked with directors who aren't very nice, and those experiences taught me what it means to be a better leader. I just want to inspire future generations to lead with kindness.

 

Can you tell us a bit more about other projects you’re currently working on?

Other than my feature film Queens, I’m currently working on a few projects expanding upon my family heritage and stories about my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather was Xu Zhimo, a very well-known Romantic and Modernist poet from China. Every high school student in China has to memorize two poems—one of them is by Mao Zedong, and the other one is by my great-grandfather. He wanted to make poetry more accessible to everyone in China, and he did that by introducing a more Western style of writing. His goal was to bring the West to China and then bring China to the West. His story is remarkable, but few people outside of China and the literary world really know about him.

When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to make a feature film about my great-grandfather, but in recent years I’ve seen how heroic my great-grandmother's story is too. She was able to avoid footbinding when she was a young girl, at a time when China was transforming many of its social practices and traditions. Throughout her life, she challenged traditions while navigating a society in flux. 

As a young girl, she fought for the opportunity to study and go to school. She eventually became the Vice President of the Shanghai Women’s Savings Bank after going through a historic and traumatic divorce with my great-grandfather (which, at the time, was nearly unprecedented). This month, I am honoring 33 years since she passed away.

In addition to the two films about my great-grandparents, my third project is about the Vincent Chin story, case, and murder. This doesn't have to do with my family, in particular, although we’ve discovered elements that my family and I identify with as Chinese Americans. The Vincent Chin case is the most well-known incident of anti-Asian violence. The murder occurred in 1982 when Vincent, a Chinese American man, was murdered in Michigan at his bachelor's party—nine days before his wedding. My project partner, a fellow producer who's also an actor, Anthony Ma, has been working on this project for the last six years, and then I joined him on the journey three years ago. Anthony and I first learned of the case through NYU Tisch Professor Christine Choy’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? in college. We open up about some moments along our research journey in the piece we wrote for NextShark. Anthony and I share the same mission: to be truthful and authentic in our storytelling, while also telling this story fully, accurately, and fairly.