B.C.-made holiday movie earns praise for showcasing diversity
VANCOUVER -- A new made-for-TV movie combines a classic holiday formula with a cast that may not be typical for the genre.
Lifetime’s “A Sugar & Spice Holiday” was filmed across the Fraser Valley and features an ensemble of mostly Asian actors.
Vancouver actor Jacky Lai said she was surprised when she first saw the script because she’s never seen someone who looked like her take a leading role in a Christmas film.
“When we are on screen now, it's usually as an iconic reason – whether we are an immigrant or a nerd or a ninja – and so, it's really great to see a story where the character is just a normal girl and she happens to look Asian,” Lai told CTV News.
Lai plays Suzy Yung, a successful architect who goes back home to her small town in Maine for the holidays.
Yung ends up entering a baking competition after getting coaxed by a former classmate, Billy Martin, played by Tony Giroux.
Martin, like Giroux, is part Asian. The actor said roles for people who are mixed-race are even rarer.
“Growing up, there was kind of an identity dysmorphia with not ever seeing myself in media,” Giroux said. “I really hope that this (movie) creates an evolution for the identity of Asians and as well as mixed-race people.”
Giroux said it was important to see Chinese traditions being reflected on the big screen.
“I’m actually really proud to bring forth the nuances of the culture and rituals that I personally go through, sometimes on a daily basis. To see that in a story brought to the screen, it's extremely humbling and exciting,” he said.
The movie also brings a sense of realism; it does not shy away from highlighting racial microaggressions.
In the first few minutes of meeting Lai’s character, her co-worker questions whether her family celebrates Christmas.
“I didn’t know Christmas is a big deal where you’re from,” the co-worker says.
“I’m from Maine,” Yung quips.
John Paul Catungal, a UBC assistant professor of critical race and ethnic studies at the university’s Social Justice Institute, said the scene underlines assumptions about people of colour.
“It is reliant on a particular idea of the main character as always a foreigner and things that are important in the North American context, the holidays, for example, would not be something that the main character’s family would celebrate or even mark,” he said.
Yung’s family owns a lobster bar and in a couple of scenes, the mom is asked why Chinese dishes, such as pork buns, are not added to the menu.
The mom is quick to point out that Americans like burgers, fries and lobster rolls and the Chinese food they do enjoy, such as Kung Pao chicken, is not authentic.
“The family limiting their restaurant to particular kinds of food that will be palatable is a tactic of racial negotiation. If their business is to succeed, they need to make decisions about what will actually sell,” explained Catungal.
He said, like real life, instances of subtle or overt racism happen in small doses, which is what this movie achieves.
“It's a holiday film; there's a lot of joy in it. But that doesn't negate the fact that these experiences do take place and at the same time, we are not just those experiences,” Cartungal said.
“A Sugar & Spice Holiday” made its American debut last weekend.
Lai said the cast and crew have received a lot of positive feedback from viewers of all ethnicities.
“People say it's wonderful to see someone that looks like me on screen, but also just the response from people who aren't Asian ... they really relate to the relationship with the grandmother, or with the baking, or their father. I think that it is so rewarding and so fulfilling to know that people can see themselves in the story,” Lai said.
The movie makes its Canadian debut on Friday.