Filmmaker Ien Chi wants to “make empathy sexy”

Published April 14, 2023

Courtesy of Ien Chi

“Storytelling in general has an incredible power to humanize people.”

For Korean-American filmmaker Ien Chi, film is so much more than just visual entertainment to be consumed—it is a bridge to intimate connection and understanding.

A passionate storyteller from early on, Chi directed “Tick Tock” in 2011, a short film that won Best Picture and Best Director at Campus MovieFest 2011, the world’s largest student film festival. He also created commercials for multiple Fortune 500 companies, before becoming creative director at Jubilee Media and MINDSET by Dive Studios. He is now the founder and executive producer of Nourish, a story design firm. Chi debuted a rough cut of his most recent project, an untitled short film collaboration with longtime colleague and producer Dan Chen at Georgetown on April 3. The screening was followed by a Q&A with both of them.

The documentary film centers around Dragon Combat Club (DCC), an underground self-defense club in New York that formed after the rise of anti-Asian and Asian American hate and violence during the pandemic. DCC has received very little media coverage since its inception, and Chen noted that the coverage it did receive wrongly portrayed it as a violent group. 

Quoting his production partner, Chi shared that their vision for this project was straightforward: “Dan was like, ‘Hey, let’s go to New York and make a documentary that actually honors these peoples’— true story.” The pair hoped to rewrite the narrative mainstream media has created for Asian Americans. From Chen’s perspective, Asian Americans have always been portrayed as the “perfect victim.”

“We were attacked, we grieved. We didn’t do anything wrong in a lot of cases, and then that’s that,” Chen said. “Asian American anger is not as articulated and not as explored in media.”

Chi and Chen hope to redefine how anger is perceived—not as something that inherently leads to violence, but as a necessary driving force towards positive change. “There’s a real validity in their anger,” Chi said. “It’s very natural and it’s a good thing to feel that anger.”

By creating a space for the expression of that anger and honoring it, people can find the value in exploring emotions that might not be perceived as “good.” They hope that, by introducing new ways to think about the reasons behind emotions and the multifaceted nature of community identity, their film can spark meaningful and transformative discourse.

Before the screening, Chi spoke about his time as the creative director of Jubilee Media, the role he is best known for.

“The mission of Jubilee, I would say very simply put, was to make empathy sexy,” he said.

Chi shared that the Jubilee team wanted to shed light on important issues through conversation, citing an instance in which they filmed a conversation between pro-choice and anti-abortion individuals in hopes of reaching audiences beyond those already exposed to and interested in the topic.

“How do we make it interesting to everyone who’s nine to 99 years old, from a grandma in the middle of nowhere in Kansas all the way to a little kid in France?” Chi said.

Their answer was to create content that was entertaining and easy to understand at first glance. Chi shared that at Jubilee, every video concept had to be fully explainable in just a couple of words—otherwise, it was too complicated. 

“The mission was to try to humanize fellow humans in a way that was very entertaining to people, and naturally viral,” Chi said.

And it was viral indeed—under Chi’s direction, Jubilee rolled out several new series that each garnered millions of views. Their titles may sound familiar: Spectrum, Middle Ground, Versus 1. Touching on deeply nuanced themes, each video breaks difficult conversations down into easily approachable ones by featuring a cast that comes from all walks of life, inviting the viewer to identify with them.

Chi left Jubilee in 2020, citing burnout from fast-paced workaholism. He’s currently on sabbatical, and by founding Nourish, is returning to what brought him to filmmaking in the very beginning: a desire to tell profound and human stories. Despite working on different projects, Chi’s pursuit of centering empathy at the heart of everything he produces remains constant.

Chi jokingly shared that, in trying to nurture his ambition and show support, his father used to tell him that “if Jesus was born today, he’d be a filmmaker.” Despite the humorous undertone, his father hinted at the potential of collective action and community building through media, something to which the duo is firmly committed. By highlighting the visceral emotional experiences of others, Chi believes that viewers can better understand the lived experience of others and step into the shoes of the individual on screen.

“I think that’s extremely powerful about media, to get rid of boundaries, walls, that we have between each other,” he said.

For both Chen and Chi, this film is part of a new movement in the age of digital media: the development of a creative landscape in which it is easier to create and put out works that are meaningful, rather than yearn to compete for fast attention.

“There’s gonna be way more media in the future. I think the only way to really make a long-lasting impact is not the one-time grab of a lot of views,” Chi said. “The creators that consistently make really soulful stuff that create a relationship with their audience are gonna make some positive impact.”

And that sort of positive impact doesn’t only have to come from wholesome, family-friendly content. Like this film, it can be about the dark and difficult stories that we wish didn’t have to be told—but as long as they are being told and talked about, we ultimately can and will move forward to progress and empowerment.

The upcoming film grapples with these difficult topics, continuing Chen and Chi’s mission-driven work. While the project undergoes one final round of edits, we’ll expectantly await its release; until then, we have their extensive catalog of Jubilee videos and films to hold us over.

Eileen Chen
Eileen is a sophomore in the College studying political economy. She likes dirty chai lattes, pretty flowers, and making playlists for every minor inconvenience.

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