Chicago Film Fest 2023 Interview: Lloyd Lee Choi on Opening Up the World in “Closing Dynasty”

Lloyd Lee Choi decided that his life after the quarantine imposed by the pandemic in 2020 was going to look a little different than the one that preceded it, having established himself as a successful commercials director and be part of the fortune few to make a steady living in the entertainment industry. Still, he hadn’t gotten into filmmaking for financial security, but to make art and though he couldn’t immediately get back out into the world and start shooting, what he could do was write.

“[That time] was a big shift for me just to refocus my energy to what I really wanted to do, which is film and narrative,” says Choi, who has taken the festival circuit by storm post-pandemic with not one but two celebrated shorts. “I made a conscious decision in 2021 to shoot ‘Same Old’ and then soon after I shot ‘Closing Dynasty,’ and these two films were my first real foray into narrative, taking the risk of myself and making stories I really want to make. It was a really big boost to confidence that both films were quite successful and that gave me the affirmation I needed to keep pursuing this and just go bigger with each project.”

While Choi is bound to make longer films, it’ll be interesting to see him make them feel any bigger than “Same Old” and “Closing Dynasty,” both dramas that zip all around New York City to give the sense that his characters truly are carrying the weight of the world of their shoulders. Although in “Same Old,” the lead has other baggage as he attempts to reclaim his stolen bike to continue his work as a delivery driver, “Closing Dynasty” centers on a seven-year-old named Queenie (Milinka Winata) who looks at the city around her without knowing what to fear, but savvy enough to make a few bucks selling flowers in heavily trafficked locations. Along with cinematographer Christopher Lew, who brought such a keen eye to Anthony Shim’s evocative coming-of-age story “Riceboy Sleeps,” Choi watches Queenie peddle her wares at subway stations and busy street corners from afar, seemingly etch out a place for herself in a metropolis that can be so intimidating in its speed and its size and following her from sunrise to sunset as she makes a way for herself where there seems to be none.

The impossibly poised and fierce Winata is clearly a force to be reckoned with as Queenie, but so to is Choi when the entirety of the frame is able to speak to her strength in “Closing Dynasty,” turning potential danger into wonder as the concrete jungle becomes a playground. The film has been charming audiences since its premiere at Berlinale earlier this year where Choi and crew were honored with a Crystal Bear Award for Best Short Film in the Generation Kplus category and SXSW where it took home an Audience Award and now riding a second wind with stops at the Chicago Film Fest and AFI Fest in a potential Oscar bid, Choi spoke about how he worked with the young Winata on such an indelible performance, getting the enormity of the environment around her on screen and how they’ve been able to watch each other grow through the process of making this.

It was interesting to see this as a follow-up to “Same Old” when they both have these characters moving through the city where you feel the loneliness of it, but they’re from completely different experiences in terms of age and circumstance. Was there any connection there?

Yeah, definitely. Initially, the film came from a program run by Gold House, Tribeca and Netflix, [who] were running this Asian American initiative to give three filmmakers a grant to make short films and we were one of three teams that made a film late last year, so was a very fast process [once] we got the grant. We just went right into prepping the film, casting, and it all happened very quickly. But if you look at “Same Old” and you look at Queenie in “Closing Dynasty,” they could pass each other on the street and I love this idea that it’s in the same universe, obviously the same area in the city. They’re just two people trying to get by, and I was excited to stay in that world and see that community from two very different perspectives and they’re two very different tonal films in a lot of ways too.

What was it like finding Milinka?

Millie’s a little star, and a real actor, even at seven years old. She’s a consummate professional and she was such a gem to work with. This is her first film, so we just had [to take] this leap of faith and she lives in L.A., and it was her first time in New York. Initially, we were going to cast a little boy only because this whole film was inspired by an actual little boy in the subway who came up to me trying to hustle me for money and I wanted to recreate this character from that boy’s perspective, but when we went through casting in New York, I just couldn’t find the right kid, so we opened up to little girls and immediately, we found some great options and I just knew meeting Millie immediately that she was perfect for this role. But it was a process to find her.

Was engaging with such a young actor something new for you?

No, I direct a lot of commercial campaigns and I work with kids sometimes, so I have a bit of experience and I think everything is casting. It’s making sure you find that actor who can just be comfortable in front of people, in front of the camera, and doesn’t buckle under pressure, and just has that clear energy that’s right for the character. That’s really all I look for.

Did you have certain locations in mind for this to build a story around?

Yeah, I wanted to keep it obviously around Chinatown, Midtown, and I just want to stay in this little pocket of New York [where] for her, this is her world. She travels quite a bit and obviously, she goes on the subway, she walks around, she wanders, but I really wanted to keep it in sort of the lower side of Manhattan and in terms of specific locations, New York is such a funny place to shoot because every corner is so beautiful and cinematic and interesting, so you’re overwhelmed with choice. You have to really be intentional and make sure every location serves a story because you can get seduced by all the beautiful locations and weird streets of New York City.

You stay at eye level with Queenie, which results in some really beautiful shots that show how big the world is around her. Was it tricky to pull off that perspective?

Yeah, I was very conscious of keeping a camera at her eye level, seeing the world from her point of view and she was not even four feet tall, so when you see New York City from that perspective, it just makes everything seem so much bigger, a little more grand, but also maybe a little scarier and a little more oppressive in some ways. [The camerawork] was very free flowing, for most of the film, just handheld, roaming with her, and the camera feels alive, but it was a very conscious decision later on in the film as things start to turn to be a bit more static and observational from afar and a little more still with the camera.

There’s a shot where you film Queenie selling flowers in the street and it looks like you’re at a pretty far remove – logistically, how could you set that up without a crew being in the shot?

Yeah, that was just careful planning and location scouting. A lot of those people walking by are real people, so we had some really interesting reactions from strangers walking up to her, asking her if she’s okay, “where’s your parents”? It was actually quite heartwarming to see how many people came up to her offering help, which gave me a little hope in humanity. And she actually made real money — I think she made like $20, $25 selling flowers and we planted some actors as well, just to make sure we got the right dialogue, but it was really incredible just watching that scene unfold. We set up in a store and made sure no one saw us.

That may have been it, but was there anything that you may not have expected but made it into the film that you really like?

All our days were very smooth and they were very short days and we moved very quickly, but the one day with the brownstone later in the film when she wanders into the open house, that was very tough, only because we had planned initially after she runs away from the realtor that she would trip and maybe fall and hurt herself. But since it was a torrential downpour, we just couldn’t film outside. It was hurricane level rain, so we had to rework that entire sequence at the very end when she runs away and it turns into like a bit of a scuffle with the realtor. That actually turned out to be better, just getting this little seven-year-old to the point of panic and fear. [Millie’s] not a trained actor. She’s really good at being herself, but getting to the state of fear was a challenge, but she did it right away, and that surprised everyone, and made us very happy at the end.

The way you light that brownstone is also quite evocative. What was it like figuring out how to get the emotionality into the frame that way?

That was all Christopher Lew, our [director of photography]. When we did our tech scout, the place was so dark and cavernous, we wanted to make sure it felt dark, but also not cold and mix that dark palette with some very warm lighting. It was like really making sure this feels like a different time and space in her day and it was a big reason we shifted it to a very orange glow for the entire scene.

You start out with that wonderful curly piano cue of Emahoy Guèbrou that triggers the rest of the score and gives it such a rich feel. How did the music come about for this?

Yeah, that was that was a writing inspiration the whole way. I was just listening to that track over and over again and it just works perfectly in our film. There’s also a saxophone track in there and things that feel not too traditional in terms of the style of film, and that still gives space to a lot of the sound and the dialogue and doesn’t really drive emotion too much. It’s still there to help help the tone, but those tracks just are so perfect because it’s a mix of playful and whimsical, but also there’s a hint of sadness as well, which is the perfect tone we were trying to find in this whole film.

What’s it been like taking this out on the road?

With any film, especially short films, it’s such a lottery and you go in with zero expectations, but this one has such a beautiful life. YWe premiered at the Berlinale in February and we won Best Short Film there and that was the best start you can ask for for any film. All of us went and got to celebrate it at the festival and we’ve been now touring a little bit with Millie and her parents, so we’ve all been going to as many as we can. We went to South By, which is such an incredible festival, and probably the best part has just been getting to hang out with Millie. Watching her grow up over the last year has been a bit of a trip for me.

“Closing Dynasty” will be available to watch virtually on the Chicago Film Festival online platform from October 16th through 22nd.

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