Finding Empathy Amid Division: ‘A Great Divide’ to Make Bay Area Debut at CAAMFest 2024

Two Korean American kids squat in a field looking at bison in the distance
"A Great Divide" explores the struggles facing a Korean American family who moves to Wyoming. Still from the film.
Filmmaker Jean Shim's "A Great Divide" was created during the height of anti-Asian hate.

At the height of the anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, filmmaker Jean Shim reached a breaking point. 

Living in Wyoming at the time, she recalls gazing out at the vast countryside and feeling a profound dissonance between its beauty and the ongoing horrors that were impacting Asian and Asian American communities. She couldn’t sit idle hearing stories of elderly Asian grandparents being shoved to the ground and attacked without warning. 

Shim contemplated various ways she could get involved with the cause – fundraising, direct donations, and participating in protests. But she also realized there was something unique she could bring to the table. 

An Asian American woman wearing a black turtleneck smiles for camera
Jean Shim, director of “A Great Divide.”

“The one thing I do know is that I know how to tell a story,” said Shim, a longtime filmmaker who got her start in the industry directing television promos, feature trailers, and commercials. “And I’ve always felt that through storytelling, it’s an avenue of creating empathy. Filmmakers have that ability to say, there’s this other side, and if you showcase that side, people become more empathetic. Part of me wanted to bridge that gap, and that was my way of giving back to my community.” 

Her culminating project is A Great Divide, Shim’s directorial debut that will have its Bay Area premiere at CAAMFest 2024 on May 12. Inspired by many of Shim’s own family’s experiences and interviews that she conducted with other Asians and Asian Americans, the film centers on a Korean American family who decides to leave their life in the Bay Area behind and relocate to a small town in Wyoming. However, the transition turns out to be a difficult one as they are faced with xenophobia and hostility in their new community.  

Going into filming A Great Divide, Shim was particularly mindful of involving the Asian community during every step of the process. She was adamant that every dollar raised for the film came from Asian American investors, and it was also important to her that the main cast and her department heads came from Asian backgrounds as well. The result was a passionate community of creatives and filmmakers that were determined to bring Shim’s vision to life. 

Shim co-wrote the script alongside writers Martina Nagel and Jeff Yang. Yang, a longtime cultural critic and journalist, was a friend of Shim’s when he was originally asked to provide feedback on an early draft of the script. He was ultimately brought on as a co-writer, and recalls that one of the biggest challenges while working on the script was finding the right balance between the characters. 

The script presented a unique opportunity to showcase widely different perspectives spanning multiple generations – from the grandma’s tumultuous immigration to the United States, to the generational burden of expectations placed upon Benjamin, the youngest of the family. 

“It struck me that Asian Americans don’t really delve deeply into the experience of racism in a lot of our works,” Yang said. “At most, we might depict single scenes of microaggressions or use an act of anti-Asian violence as a kind of trigger. But this experience that we all had during the pandemic where it felt like these things were coming from all over and being aimed at every strata of being Asian American – to me, that felt like something we needed to depict in an honest and authentic fashion without shying away from talking about racism toward Asians, and how we each respond to it in all of our different and diverse perspectives as Asian Americans.” 

One of the most memorable scenes from A Great Divide comes toward the end of the film, when a powerful monologue is delivered by Ken Jeong, who plays the father figure named Isaac. After his wife, played by Jae Suh Park, accuses him of never experiencing racism like she has, Isaac is compelled to share his story. Upon graduating college, Isaac took a job at an investment bank and accumulated millions for his division as a junior trader. And despite getting passed over for a well-deserved promotion and grappling with colleagues mocking his appearance, Isaac kept his head down and continued working. “Every day for five goddamn years… I’d smile and I’d wave and I’d be all polite. That wasn’t cowardice. That was bravery,” he said. 

A Korean American man in the foreground looks serious while his son and wife are in the background
Ken Jeong plays the father role, Isaac, in “A Great Divide.” Still from the film.

The moving speech is adapted from the story of Yang’s own father, who worked tirelessly as a doctor in a hospital but was never granted the role of head of his department despite his exemplary work. Yang says he wanted the scene to depict a dimension of racism that some might not consider, like the notion that Asians and Asian Americans may not be “meant” for certain roles in society or destined to reach the top of their fields. 

Yang added, “This isn’t a film that’s about racism in the era of COVID. This is a film that tries to sort through the ways in which these attitudes and these behaviors are things that Asian Americans encounter daily and regularly, and often don’t speak up.”

Following CAAMFest, one of Shim’s main goals for A Great Divide will be finding an enthusiastic distribution partner that believes in the work she and her team have created. As far as what she hopes audiences take away from the film, Shim returns to the reason why she chose to take on the project in the first place: to foster more understanding. 

“I’m hoping we find a distributor that believes that this film should be accessible to all these homes that are not necessarily in the big cities but across America,” Shim said. “That’s what I’m really hoping for – especially in this time now with the elections and it feels more divisive, that this film can bring up that dialogue in a way that has empathy.” 

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A Great Divide will have its Bay Area premiere at CAAMFest on Sunday, May 12 at 6:30pm at The Great Star Theater.To buy tickets, visit CAAMFest.com.

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