“No one’s gonna tell your story but you,” said actress Vivian Bang to an enthusiastic crowd following the world premiere of White Rabbit, which she co-wrote and starred in, at Sundance.
Centered on a struggling Korean American performance artist in Los Angeles, the film tackles big issues like racism, bias and the interplay between art and commerce. It sounds heavy, but White Rabbit manages to keep a playfully provocative tone, encouraging the audience to ask the questions but without veering into didacticism. The story is also quite personal to Bang, who not only drew upon her own experiences but also those of her friends for inspiration.
The impetus for the project, a collaboration between Bang and director Daryl Wein, was her performance art piece titled Can You Hear Me / LA 92. Timed with the 25th anniversary of the LA riots last year, Wein was in the audience at REDCAP for Bang’s show and was captivated.
“I was always kinda curious about [the riots] when I was young, like why was there so much tension between Koreans and the black community during the nineties?” recalls Bang.
“When I was researching there were so many layers…things that really mirrored our current time.”
The resulting piece had Bang essentially retelling the history of the riots from a Korean American perspective, elements of which feature prominently in White Rabbit. The protagonist, Sophia, played by Bang, dons a white jumpsuit and platinum blonde wig and totes around a portable microphone and speaker for her art, monologuing and making drug stores, street corners and public parks her stage. The look and feel of it, which is to say that Sophia is channeling people’s experiences rather than acting them, derive from Korean shamanism.
Sophia is driven by the need to create but when one, as the character tells her mother, makes “art you can’t sell,” creative solutions are required.
“How do you make art now? How do you survive?” asks Bang.
“I can relate to this because I’m an actor, and a lot of my actor friends are having to take on other jobs to support [themselves].”
Enter TaskRabbit. When Sophia isn’t flouncing around LA as a shaman or uploading videos of herself mashing her face into various types of food to her YouTube channel, she’s doing odd jobs for strangers to make ends meet.
“At first we were thinking like a Lyft or an Uber driver because that’s the natural go-to, but my friend’s husband is notorious for using TaskRabbit for everything,” laughs Bang.
Indeed, the intimate nature of the platform, which matches Sophia to jobs requiring her to, say, go to a person’s house and clean out a garage, adds a certain dimension to both story and character. It also says something about the times we live in; that an affluent housewife can post an ad looking for someone to sort her toddler’s toys by size, color and function, and someone will show up to do just that.
In the course of making art and being a Task Rabbit, Sophia encounters and befriends Nana (Nana Ghana), an activist and photographer. They talk about their lives and their art, not men, and they don’t compete with each other for anything. It may sound banal on paper, but onscreen it’s one of the most accurate, true-to-life portrayals of female companionship in recent memory.
“A lot of times women are portrayed through the male gaze,” agrees Bang.
Her film, of course, does not, which is why – to a female viewer at least – White Rabbit feels much more realistic than many other contemporary films. It’s a win also for representation, boasting two leads that are women of color, and possibly not straight (although that’s not the predominant focus of the film).
By far the most subversive and memorable scene occurs when a filmmaker (white, male) requests a meeting with Sophia after seeing her performance art. From the get-go it’s all wrong. In the performance that he saw, she had a Korean accent; when she shows up with her natural American accent, he’s confused. He attempts to explain the character he wants her to play, a corporate something or other second to the male protagonist. But she should have a Korean accent! The exchange is awkward, uncomfortable and cringe-inducing, yet sadly familiar.
“Everyone who’s seen the movie says, ‘That scene is so dangerous,’” laughs Bang.
“I think it’s really funny because a lot of actresses of color – any performers of colors – we deal with this on a daily basis.”
The scene escalates hilariously when the filmmaker checks his privilege, acknowledging that he’s never wanted or had to work for anything. Sophia is aghast and mortified.
Despite being a working actor for many years, White Rabbit marks Bang’s first foray into filmmaking and writing. And in this scene, in particular, one senses a release of all the pent-up frustration against ignorance, unconscious bias and racism that have festered in the film industry for too long.
“I’ve been silent for so long,” said Bang at the post-premiere Q&A.
Later she would reiterate that, beside Wein’s creative support, White Rabbit came about because she “gave myself permission” to make it. With such a solid debut, hopefully the floodgates will open for the actress and writer to craft even more stories worth sharing.