'Actual People' by Kit Zauhar shows that struggle and confusion are just a part of life

A scene from the film "Actual People" where Riley, on the right, attempts to reconcile with her roommate who's kicking her out of his apartment. [JIFF]

About to graduate from college? But you're in danger of having to take a summer class because you are failing your major? Just broke up with your boyfriend of three years? Maybe most importantly — do you have no idea what you’re going to do after you graduate, even though everyone else seems to have it all figured out?

This is the situation in which the protagonist Riley finds herself, in the film “Actual People” by Kit Zauhar, which was invited to compete in the International Competition of the 23rd Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) which runs until Saturday. However, the problems only scratch the surface of what Riley is going through: Riley is a Chinese American struggling with her identity and race on top of the everyday troubles young people have, which are amplified when she meets Leo, another half-Asian, at a party.

Zauhar wrote, directed, and also stars as a lead actor as Riley for her feature film debut “Actual People.” Although the story is fiction, Zauhar admits that a lot of what Riley goes through derives from her own experiences when she was a fresh college graduate.

“I related to the place she was in the film and I related to her narrow understanding of the world,” Zauhar said at an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily last week. “[Also in the film,] my real little sister plays her little sister so there are things — family dynamic, obviously race — that are intrinsic to who I am and to who her character is.”

Kit Zauhar [JIFF]

She went on to explain why she decided to feature as Riley.

“I think I always wanted to do it,” she said. “[Acting] is something I’m comfortable doing. I think there are not a lot of roles for someone who looks like me. I can’t play an Asian person, [but] I’m also not white. If I had two blonde parents in the movie, that would be very strange and it would not be believable. In terms of my own films, I kind of give myself roles that are not really available to someone who looks like me.”

In the film, Riley confesses that the reason why she is so latched on to Leo — who remains generally unresponsive to her texts and is evidently not interested in her — is because she feels a sense of belonging.

“We cling to people when we feel lost,” Zauhar said. “Every single time I made a bad decision about a guy, probably, I was in a bad place in my life. I think generally, especially young women, can become very easily attracted to the idea of how someone else can fulfill you when you’re not feeling fulfilled yourself. I always had a lot of Asian friends — that’s just how it goes. I think it is true you do feel comfortable with your same race. There’s just no getting around that, especially if you’re a minority. You want to feel safe and secure […] There is a Leo there, out in the world, and he was half-Asian. I think it’s a very interesting experience because I’ve never dated someone who was my kind of exact race. There was a lot of comfort in someone understanding how you move through the world.”

Like Riley, Zauhar is a Chinese-American who has struggled with her racial identity.

“Being biracial in itself — half Asian, half white — is a pretty new phenomenon,” she said. “Race is a perception. Race is how you’re perceived by other people really, so it’s like an external identity in a lot of ways. My little sister looks a lot more Asian than I do, so her experience of the world being half-Asian is very different from mine.

“It makes me sad that externally, people don’t necessarily want to connect with me first, connect with me about my race, because they don’t realize I’m Asian. I think you’re skirting two worlds, and it’s advantageous in some ways, but also it’s a very murky place where a lot of the times you’re not really sure where you entirely fit in.”

However, Zauhar has learned to come to terms with it.

“Internally, yes, I feel very strong in my conviction of who I am and where I came from, but I don’t think that means much because people are always going to see your race,” she said with a shrug. “There aren't really ways which I can present [myself to be] more Asian, more white or whatever. That’s just how it is, but I think through growing up and finding your community and the things you love about your culture, those are all very valuable avenues through which you achieve self-acceptance.”

Riley breaks down in front of her family as she wrestles with her problems with college graduation, her relationship, her future and her race in "Actual People." [JIFF]

At the end of the film, Riley still does not have her ducks in a row. She still needs to take the summer class and figure out what she wants to do with her life, but oddly enough her expression is more relaxed and peaceful than before.

“I wanted [the ending] to be a return to the classroom, but eventually she just starts flirting with this random guy again,” Zauhar said with a smile. “I think it shows being young is not about learning from your mistakes; it’s about repeating them and getting a little better every time.”

Zauhar believes that it is okay for young people to go through confusion like Riley did, where they don’t feel like “actual people” because they feel lost, uncertain and terrified about what’s to come.

“It’s hard because I think it’s a necessary feeling,” Zauhar said. “If you’re what you don’t want to be, how do you become who you want to be if you don’t realize there’s this satisfaction? I think it’s necessary pain. I feel like it’s a very Asian thing — you have to endure and suffer. There was a very sad time in my life when I was graduating. I was going through a lot of stuff, and it definitely isn’t something I want to do again, but now, I’m in Korea with my film, so obviously I’m glad it happened and I don’t regret it. […] You just have to persevere, but I don’t mean persevere to get up every day and try to figure out how to get your life together. I think it’s just realizing how much there still is ahead of you and being okay knowing you’re not at the right place right now because you’re not going to wake up one day and get everything you want done and suddenly the next day find your life changed. You don’t realize change until much later.”