May/June 2020 for My Sight Is Lined with Visions
Kelly Loves Tony, dir. Spencer Nakasako
By Devika Girish
Kelly Loves Tony. The title of Spencer Nakasako’s 1998 film recalls something one might find carved into the bleachers of a high school or on trees under which young lovers meet. An intimate message (or promise, or wish) made material—turned, through the ventriloquism of the third person, into touchable, durable fact. It’s an evocative metaphor for Nakasako’s pioneering “refugee trilogy,” a series of amateur, autoethnographic films about Southeast Asian refugee youths in the Bay Area. Made right at the cusp of the cultural transition to digital, the films expose the ways in which autobiography, when mediated through a camera, undergoes a series of radical slippages: between object and subject; personal and public; memory and record.
The trilogy—a.k.a. Don Bonus (1995), Kelly Loves Tony, and Refugee (2003)—grew out of a set of unique pedagogic experiments. Nakasako, who had worked as a film and video instructor in these communities for almost 20 years, provided his subjects with camcorders and then supervised them as they freely recorded their everyday lives. The results renegotiate our ideas of authority and authorship by reifying the (sometimes invisible) material and institutional contexts that produce these terms. All three films are extraordinarily intimate, presenting portraits of under-documented lives and communities from the inside. But one might argue that it’s Nakasako’s interventions that make them legible as documentaries, and the sources of funding and distribution (notably the Center for Asian American Media and ITVS) that legitimize them as subjects of public interest.
Even within this larger constellation of authorial voices invoked by the trilogy, Kelly Loves Tony stands out for its complex triaging of perspectives and its attention to intersections of gender and migration. Unlike the other two films, which center on a single, male protagonist, Kelly Loves Tony charts a year and a half in the lives of a couple: Kelly and Tony, two Laotian American youth living in Richmond, California. The film opens with a shot of Kelly on the day of her high school graduation. Dressed in crimson robes, she smiles coyly at the camera as a proud Tony congratulates her from behind it. Soon after, in a diaristic segment shot in her bedroom, Kelly makes a revelation: she’s pregnant.
This sets off a cascade of changes in their still-nascent lives. They get engaged. Kelly moves in with Tony’s parents to prove her viability as a daughter-in-law, while also trying to pursue her dream of a college degree. Tony, a gangster on the mend, works a job and fights a deportation case that hangs ominously over their young family. As they grapple with their new roles as parents and spouses, they also come to occupy shifting, yet distinct positions in the film’s making. For the most part, Tony handles the camera, offering commentary from behind it, while Kelly appears on screen. Yet, as the title suggests, Kelly represents the emotional center of the documentary, grounding it with her voiceover narration and intermittent video diaries. “This is mostly Tony’s POV, but Kelly’s diary,” Nakasako said in an interview, explaining that the resulting shape of the footage forced him and his editors to rethink what they had initially envisioned as a Rashomon-esque oscillation between “two points of view happening at the same time.”
But there’s the rub: having a filmic point of view requires not just the act of seeing, but the labor of seeing through the camera. How can that labor be simultaneous or equitable in any sense, when it’s implicated within the gendered divisions of domestic labor? The form of Kelly Loves Tony seems to arise, to a great extent, from a simple fact: that for most of the film, Kelly has a baby in her arms or is engaged in manual chores like cooking and cleaning. Her time at Tony’s home is rarely free, and when she can sneak a few moments, she uses the camera reflexively, to try and articulate some sense of a private selfhood outside of the social roles of mother, wife, and daughter-in-law. Tony, though himself occupied with his job and legal issues, is mobile within his home and has his hands available to hold the camera. Their perspectival positions within the documentary are not as much matters of choice as contingencies produced by their identities, reminding us that wielding a camera is embodied work, and that filmmaking, even as an act of self-documentation or -preservation, requires time away from the demands of sustenance.
These nuances challenge the characterization of Nakasako’s work as “collaborative,” a label that seems both too broad and too limiting. All filmmaking is collaboration, in a sense, but the transactions involved are never as even or reciprocal as the prefix “co-” implies. In 2007, while speaking on a panel at the SF International Asian American Film Festival, Nakasako used a different formulation to describe his practice, one that evokes collaboration without its associated lore of equity. Refuting the fantasy of “independent” filmmaking, he said, “What I’ve learned is that I’m a dependent filmmaker. You’re dependent on money, you’re depending on an audience. You want your film to be distributed.” This idea of filmmaking as inherently “dependent” allows us to recast the makers of the “refugee trilogy” in more precise terms—as interlinked by webs of incommensurate exchanges.
The term haunts Kelly Loves Tony in other ways, too, and not least because its protagonists’ lives are altered by the arrival of a literal dependent. The film’s prologue tells us that Kelly’s father fought in the Secret War in Laos on behalf of the American CIA, which made refugees out of Kelly and her mother. Her family’s present and future are at the mercy of—and made forever conditional by—the very forces that destroyed her past. It’s a tragic irony that emerges in full force when, at the end of the film, Kelly speaks wistfully about wanting the American Dream: that cruel, ahistorical myth of independence as earned, all on one’s own.
Devika Girish is the Assistant Editor at Film Comment and also writes for The New York Times, Reverse Shot, and other publications.