Director Emily May Jampel doesn’t use TikTok, but that hasn’t stopped her short film Lucky Fish from finding a loyal fanbase on the social media platform popular with Gen Z. Her quietly beautiful eight-minute movie, screening as part of the PBS Short Film Festival, portrays an encounter between two high school girls each escaping tedious family dinners at the same Chinese restaurant.
Here’s the scene: Maggie is seated at a round dining table being grilled by her mother’s friend about her college plans and whether she has a boyfriend. “I spent a lot of time growing up as a kid—and still do—at those long dinners with Chinese relatives, and it very much feels like that. The two main characters and even the younger sister are all kind of based on people I’ve encountered in real life, bits of myself, and family members.”
That’s where the similarity ends. According to Jampel, the plot line featuring Maggie (played by Lukita Maxwell) meeting a beautiful girl named Celine is purely fiction. The movie’s shadowy surroundings leave the viewer wondering about the blurry lines between reality and fantasy. But the storyline has clearly struck a nerve with real-life young people. “The audience base for it that’s responded the most enthusiastically has been a lot of teenagers,” says Jampel.
On TikTok, users have posted numerous fan videos. While this is every movie publicist’s fantasy, the online popularity of Lucky Fish is not the result of a brilliant marketing campaign aimed at content creators. The ironic thing is that the filmmaker herself is not on the popular video sharing social media platform. “I’m a bit of a dinosaur, and I find it very intimidating,” admits Jampel. “So I didn’t even know it was doing well on Tik Tok until friends of mine who are very active on TikTok just sent me these viral clips. And they were like, ‘Emily, is this your film? Like, it has millions of views? What is going on?’”
The film, which world premiered in 2022 at CAAMFest, the San Francisco Bay Area festival of Asian American film, music and food produced by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). Since then, it has screened at over a dozen festivals in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, including Hong Kong— where her Chinese mother is originally from. Lucky Fish has also been recognized by many prominent LGBTQ festivals such as Outfest in Los Angeles, Frameline in San Francisco, and Inside Out in Toronto.
Jampel’s directorial debut has won numerous awards and received glowing write-ups. “Film critics have written very nice respectable reviews like ‘strong cinematography, what a well crafted script’ and that stuff,” says Jampel. “It all means a lot to me as a filmmaker, but I love seeing TikTok comments that are like screaming and crying, throwing up, like ‘I’m obsessed with this.’”
This enthusiastic reception from young women reminds Jampel of why she started making films in the first place. While Jampel has a broad background in the industry, including acting and development, her next project is another narrative short set in Honolulu (where she grew up) and also starring Lukita Maxwell. She is also the recipient of a New Voices grant, a partnership between New York’s LGBTQ film festival, NewFest, and Netflix. Stay up to date on what’s next at emilymayjampel.com.
Watch Lucky Fish online as part of the PBS Short Film Festival through July 21.