What It’s Like Releasing a Racially Charged Movie about a Chinese Immigrant During COVID-19

Asian-Canadian writer-director Li Dong, whose debut feature, Stealing School, is out this week on VOD, gives his take on the current moment.

Last week I went on my daily sanity-walk around one of Toronto’s taller, shinier neighbourhoods – one that’s populated by lots of bouncy dogs and dewy-faced urbanites (seemingly in that order). I strolled past a convenience store where the Asian dude working there was out front having a smoke. The guy looked exhausted; he was hunched over and slid his N95 mask down under his chin so he could inhale some sort of blissful sense of normalcy. He looked up, made eye contact, and to my surprise, gave me a nod of the head that to me suggested some kind of fraternal solidarity. This had never happened to me before in Toronto. I instinctively nodded back and continued on my way, wondering how many paces I was from hitting 10,000 steps on the day.

As time passed, I couldn’t shake the idea that this guy was nodding at me to telegraph something like, “You all right, bro? Hanging in there?” as if checking in on me like we were in an imaginary foxhole during a silent war that only we knew we were fighting. Given the rash of racist attacks on Asians that have swept across America during the pandemic, the underlying implication of his gesture seemed clear: we have to start checking in and looking after each other, because at some point in the past year, everything changed; it was now Us vs. Them.

Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz in Li Dong’s Stealing School.

When I set out to make my first feature film, Stealing School, which is out this Friday on VOD, I wanted an outlet to vent my (admittedly, somewhat childish) rage towards legacy higher education institutions by satirizing their insufferable sense of self-seriousness and hypocrisy. My movie is set in a “world-class” university where an academic tribunal convenes to figure out if a certain Chinese-Canadian tech prodigy plagiarized their final history essay. I wanted the story to work like a scratch and sniff sticker, one pompously displaying the emblem of an elite Western institution that, if you dug your nails into it a bit, would unearth a pungent whiff of the racism festering just below its glossy surface. I was looking forward to finally showing the movie to the world when a global pandemic swiftly pierced the surface of Western society … only to unearth a pungent whiff of the racism festering just below its glossy surface.

When confronted with times of great adversity, we’ll work to shift the blame to someone –anyone – rather than accepting what Philip Roth calls “the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.” In our current situation, it makes sense that if the virus started in China, then somehow the Chinese are responsible. Many are using this bunk logic to reason that the Chinese culture and the Chinese people en masse are responsible for the virus. This dubious deduction thus emboldens bigots to direct their frustrations at an entire group of people who (by the distinct shape of their eye) look the part. Like the main character of my movie, many of us East Asians today understand that we aren’t getting blamed because we did something wrong, we’re getting punished for simply being who we are. My film can thus be used as a lens to examine the fragile foundations of multiculturalism within American society, and how it can easily melt away under the heat of societal distress. By total and complete accident, I made the first movie that captures the geopolitical anxiety of the West, post-COVID-19.

Li Dong on the set of Stealing School.

Let me finish with another story about my city, one that illustrates how a public disaster setting off a wave of racism isn’t a novel phenomenon in the world, and certainly not in the city of Toronto. On April 5, 1994, while at an upscale dessert café, a 23-year-old woman named Vivi Leimonis was killed in a botched robbery attempt by a man named Lawrence Brown, a Jamaican immigrant. This crime set off a panic in Toronto in which citizens not-so-indirectly pointed the finger at the Caribbean community for their act of “urban terrorism.” There were flowers and letters left by the café’s doorway, and one person even left a note pleading for people to not blame the incident on the city’s Black community. The note was later found defaced with the following words written over it: “Kill your own. Leave us alone.”

Once this particular dark period of the COVID-19 pandemic is over and past, the conversation will begin to focus on the question of responsibility: Who is to blame for all this? As I show in Stealing School, it’s unlikely that any person – Chinese or otherwise – with an ounce of self-respect will allow themselves to be judged by someone whom they believe has no moral authority to be judging them. Insulting accusations are a universal language and will provoke heated emotional responses. Sides will be taken. Accusations will be made. And people – so much for the worse – are liable to suffer.

Li Dong‘s debut feature, Stealing School, a dark satirical comedy which spotlights systematic racism through the eyes of a female Asian student at a prestigious university, is out on VOD through Vertical Entertainment on February 26. Li graduated from Dalhousie University in 2006 with honours in English and history and then went on to graduate from Dalhousie Law School. After law school, Li played poker professionally before he was hand-selected by Oscar-nominated director Werner Herzog for his “Rogue Film School.” Li has since gone on to write and direct numerous short narratives, documentaries and music videos.