When director Jessica Yu first left college, she thought maybe she’d try to go to the Olympics as a fencer. It wasn’t a far-off goal for Yu, who had been on the U.S. national fencing team—until an injury stopped her Olympic ambitions in their tracks.
Without a clear career path in mind, Yu started working on commercial sets in Los Angeles as a production assistant. Eventually, she found herself working at a documentary company, which she loved—especially because the filmmakers were passionate, even if there was less money to be made. “And there were more women and people of colour working in that space,” Yu recalls.
She got to work learning everything she could about the craft of documentary filmmaking, especially from her more established bosses, who taught her that “it’s sweat equity that propels a project forward—a lot of documentaries end up being labours of love, so it becomes an equal opportunity situation if you’re willing to put in the effort.” Documentarian Freida Lee Mock, for example, was one of Yu’s first bosses—and sound recording on Mock’s Oscar-winning documentary about Chinese American artist Maya Lin was one of Yu’s first gigs.
Soon, Yu moved up the ranks and began directing her own documentaries—starting mostly with shorts like Sour Death Balls in 1993 and The Conductor in 1994. Through her hard work and passion, Yu’s third short Breathing Lessons about the life of journalist and poet Mark O’Brienwon an Oscar in 1997 for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Despite the success, Yu felt boxed in. “Once you work in one genre, it’s hard for people to see you doing other things,” she says. That changed when she met John Wells (the legendary producer behind shows like Shameless and The West Wing), who invited her on to TV sets to observe and direct an episode. “I’m forever grateful to John Wells for putting his resources behind getting underrepresented people into [TV]. At the time, people of colour, women of colour, Asian women… there was nothing,” she recalls. “I felt a lot of pressure, not just because I didn’t see a lot of people like me, but because my experiences were so different.”
Then, in 2004, while working on another documentary, The Realms of the Unreal, she was approached by the doc’s production company Cherry Sky Films about writing and directing a comedy. Up until then, Yu had directed some TV, including episodes of shows like ER—but she hadn’t worked on a narrative feature yet. So, she jumped at the chance, especially since she got to write with her friend and writer/actor Jimmy Tsai. “It was tricky because we were very much on an indie budget, but it was so much fun to be able to explore things we thought were funny and that said things about our perspectives and experiences as Asian Americans,” Yu says.
The feature, Ping Pong Playa, which was directed by Yu and starred Tsai, follows a young Chinese American boy who spends his days playing video games and helping out at his mother’s ping pong class. It’s a comedic and heartwarming story about family and passion—but is, most importantly, a raucous time and deeply unserious. “We’ve seen a lot of good dramas in Asian American cinema,” Yu told IndieWire ahead of Ping Pong Playa’s release in 2008. “But we all felt there was a gaping void in one area: superficial comedy. So we approached this as a bit of public service.”
Since then, Yu has hopped back and forth between shorts, documentaries and TV (and getting Emmy nominations for directing shows like Fosse/Verdon), all while keeping a foot in each world.
Her newest movie, Quiz Lady, builds on all of her past experience, combining all the skills she learned from her years in documentary and TV with a genuinely funny and uplifting family-focused story. The comedy stars Awkwafina as Anne, a quiz show-obsessed woman and Sandra Oh as Jenny, her chaotic older sister. The two must band together to get Anne on her favourite game show in order to win money to pay off their mother’s gambling debt. It’s also her biggest project to date—Will Ferrell is one of the stars and producers and it’s being distributed on Hulu.
When she was first approached with the script, Yu says that she was instantly drawn to the idea of telling a story about an under-explored relationship: sisters. Especially Asian American sisters. “I liked the idea that you have a grounded relationship that you follow, and you’re invested in, but the script wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in terms of what it could get away with humour-wise,” she says about her first impressions of Jen D’Angelo’s screenplay.
And while the original script wasn’t written by an Asian, many of Quiz Lady’s jokes and details feel designed for an Asian audience. There are community in-jokes like Jenny’s obsession with K-Beauty products, but there are also nuances that lend richness to the characters that Asian audiences will notice immediately—for example, the fact that Jenny and Annie are “east coast Asians” and are the black sheep of the extended family, who are all “SoCal Asians”.
Many of those details, says Yu, come from the collaboration between all four women: Her, D’Angelo, Oh and Awkwafina all workshopped the film together for a year before production, pitching jokes that might fit in the movie and adding additional textures. “It was the three of us, in a room, just throwing things around—and Jen taking it all in,” she says. “Some of it was just me, Sandra and Awkwafina talking about our experiences, which was helpful with the film but also led to a bond that meant we had a level of comfort and trust when we started filming.”
The film is a hilarious cross-country romp, with outrageous moments that are sure to get audiences laughing out loud. Oh’s performance especially is unlike anything else you’ve seen her in—unlike her typical dramatic roles in shows like Killing Eve and Grey’s Anatomy (where she had previously worked with Yu), Oh’s absurdly overdramatic Jenny milks every moment, leading to an epic performance that hopefully translates to more comedic roles for the Korean Canadian actress. And the film’s humour differs from other contemporary comedies, leaning in a bit more to the absurd while telling a uniquely Asian American story without having each and every joke pointing at the characters’ Asianness.
“We wanted to tell the jokes that haven’t been told, we wanted to go for the more unexpected,” says Yu. “It was new to us. But it also felt true to life. I’m excited to share something that is so fun, rewarding and uplifting.”
Quiz Lady had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and will be released on Disney+ on November 3, 2023.