In this year of glossy Asian-American stories on the big screen, MDMA, the debut effort of director Angie Wang, stands out for shedding light on the dark side of the model minority myth.
Born into a chaotic Chinese-American family with an absentee mother and a loving but hard-drinking restaurant-cook father, Wang, played by Annie Q, is left alone most nights, raising herself on takeout and television.
By 17, her innate intelligence and excellent test scores land her a place at a prestigious California university. But once there, she finds her family can’t afford the tuition. So the enterprising Wang gets a job at the college’s science lab and figures out how to make MDMA, the party drug commonly known as ecstasy.
Soon the first-year student becomes the largest manufacturer of the yet-to-be prohibited substance on the entire West Coast.
It’s a journey that is at times funny, sad, cool, and dark—a warped Cinderella story that involves a Chinese-American from the ’hood who uses her brains to climb the social and economic ladder of an elite college, and away from a childhood of abuse and neglect.
Wang, the director, based the film on her own experience as a dealer in the 1980s.
“The flashbacks to when I was a kid are basically dead lifts from my childhood,” Wang says. “The movie captured about 30 years of experience condensed into one year on the screen.”
And while many characters are composites, some really did suffer the tragic ends portrayed in the film.
“There were a lot of people whose lives I felt guilty about hurting,” says the filmmaker, who spent years in therapy and later founded a nonprofit for at-risk middle school students.
Wang wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 10 days, corralled top producing talent (including British film producer Cassian Elwes—whose credits include Blue Valentine, Dallas Buyers Club and Mudbound—and Silicon Valley investor Lawrence Braitman, who was Wang’s boyfriend for several years), and worked with notable actors, among them New York stage and television actress Annie Q, Francesca Eastwood (one of Clint’s daughters) and The Bold and the Beautiful soap star Pierson Fodé.
“I wanted to tell a story that was grittier,” Wang says. “In MDMA, we don’t have to justify that Angie is Asian. She is just a person who is caught up in doing sh**ty things, and she’s striving to find the light. It’s vitally important right now to show all kinds of humanity on the screen.”
Wang shot and completed MDMA in 2014, but it took four years to get it to screens in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The timing couldn’t have been better. With films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before bringing Asian-American narratives to a wide audience, MDMA is riding the wave—and presenting a much-needed perspective.
“When you don’t fit the stereotype, you start to believe you aren’t ‘as good as’ or you’re not worthy,” Wang says. “Asians are lots of things, not just what the model minority image dictates. We can still be viable, and not look like what other people dictate.”
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.