The Taiwanese grandmothers who went from feeling ‘old and useless’ to an Oscar nomination

<span>(l-r)Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei attend the Oscars nominees luncheon in Los Angeles after documentary Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó was picked.</span><span>Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
(l-r)Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei attend the Oscars nominees luncheon in Los Angeles after documentary Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó was picked.Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/Rex/Shutterstock

The two elderly Taiwanese women are leaning in towards the Zoom screen, sitting side by side and wearing complimentary smart red outfits. In an adjoining screen their grandson, film-maker Sean Wang, sits on a couch looking slightly nervous as they speak to a dozen or so journalists in Taipei.

“This feels surreal, doing a press conference with my grandmothers and seeing them answer all these questions while I’m just kind of sitting here,” he laughs. “And leading up to the Oscars … I say it out loud and it doesn’t feel like a real sentence.”

Wang’s grandmothers, Chang Li hua, 86, and Yi Yan Fuei, 97 have had a big few months. His short documentary about the duo, in-laws but also housemates and best friends akin to sisters, has swept through awards season, and is up for an Academy Award (a video of their reaction to the announcement went viral).

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The pair have walked a red carpet at the film premier and an Oscars lunch, and been featured in Vanity Fair. For the Oscars they’ll be dressed in custom Rodarte, styled by the costume designer for Everything Everywhere All At Once, Shirley Kurata.

“I’ve never dreamed of anything like this,” Yi says. “It’s like I’ve been to another world.”

The 17-minute film, Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó, offers a glimpse of the simple but full life of Yi, who is Wang’s Nǎi Nai (Mandarin for paternal grandmother), and Chang, who is his Wài Pó (maternal grandmother). They were born and raised in Taiwan, experiencing the extreme hardship of poverty and war and the subsequent decades of martial law. Earlier this century they followed their sons to the US, settling in California’s Bay area.

Wang has been filming his grandmothers since he was young. The “proof of concept” for this now Oscar-nominated documentary began with a Christmas card video, an absurd comedy skit of his grandmothers killing him and burying his body in the back yard after he annoys them by refusing to eat offered blueberries.

He says: “That was 2018, and I was like ‘there’s something here’. There’s something so much more to this that’s bigger and deeper than a one-minute Christmas card.”

It wasn’t hard for him to convince Chang and Yi to let him film their daily lives, including waking up in their shared bed, helping each other do morning exercises, cooking food together, singing, dancing, and gardening.

“My grandson is an easygoing person,” says Yi. “He gets along well with elders and kids … At first we thought he was joking, but the movie came true.”

Filmed against a background of rising hate crime

Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó was filmed in the spring of 2021, during the pandemic and amid worsening racist violence against Asian people in the US.

“I think so much of what inspired this movie was the fact that people like my grandmothers … were being dehumanised,” says Wang. “People like Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó were being targeted, and they were being overlooked and relegated to victims of hate crime. But spend a few minutes with them and you see this joy, people who are three-dimensional and human.”

“If anything their emotions are even more visceral and heightened because those themes, like mortality, are a little more immediate for someone like Nai Nai than me.”

The documentary is deeply personal, touching on family, loneliness, and the feelings that come as friends pass and your own death feels acutely inevitable.

There is also humour, with clips of the pair dressing in streetwear, arm wrestling, throwing dollar bills off the staircase, and a surprising amount of fart jokes. One scene shows Yi filming Chang chugging from a whiskey bottle. (The bottle is filled with tea. “Can you imagine if it was real and I was just making them chug whiskey,” laughs Wang.)

The success of the film has taken Wang by surprise. “That we’re going to the Oscars feels like this insane journey,” he says.

“If you took away the Oscars, Disney Plus, the idea that we get to share this movie with festivals and win awards, and told us that 10 people will watch this movie – including yourself, your grandmas, your parents, and the Guardian – we still would have made the movie.”

The grandmothers say they are incredibly grateful for the film and the support it’s received, and are proud of their grandson, although the film is littered with jokes about his attempts to make them famous.

“Before the film I felt like were old and useless, but after filming we realised there’s still a lot we can do, we can be characters in movies, still be functional people in society,” says Chang.

“In the past society talked mainly about the relationship between parents and children. I hope this movie will help the younger generation to get closer to their grandparents.”