Filmmaker, writer, and artist Kate Tsang has worked predominately in the realm of animated television with shows Adventure Time: Distant Lands and Steven Universe Future. Both have touched the lives of their audiences and continued to push the boundaries of what animated series can accomplish with their layered themes of trauma and the emotions that come with it, as well as for their LGBT representation. Tsang brings that same kind of pathos to her feature directorial debut, Marvelous and the Black Hole, a live-action story of a young and angry girl named Sammy, played by Miya Cech, and the unexpected friendship she forms with an older magician named Margot, played by Rhea Pearlman.
The film tackles feelings of loss and anger in a touchingly honest way, and has a visual flourish that makes for some poignant and charming imagery. We sat down via Zoom with Tsang – BMO was also present but sadly chose not to chime in – to discuss her film and its virtual Sundance premiere. Originally slated to screen at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the event was cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Kate Tsang: “Because Tribeca was cancelled, no films really premiered there; at least ours didn’t. It was disappointing at first but it gave us time to sort of finesse our film and really give ourselves the freedom to think about what we wanted to do and take our time with it. So getting into Sundance was definitely a silver lining.”
This year’s Sundance Film Festival will be entirely virtual, a first for most filmmakers who are accustomed to gauging audience reactions immediately and in-person.
Kate Tsang: “I have no comparison (Laughs). But I’m very, very excited about this virtual premiere, and I’m excited that more people get a chance to watch the Sundance films this way. I’m happy to be here.”
Tsang’s work in animation has been a part of a new wave of children’s programming that doesn’t baby its audience or take them for granted, trusting them to handle deeper story lines and more layered themes than shows of years past. Of course, it’s a bit unfair to label these stories as simply for children, as they’ve attracted audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Kate Tsang: “Growing up, my favorite films were family oriented films, like E.T. or Edward Scissorhands. I wouldn’t say they’re exactly for children, but I definitely think children could enjoy them. Those are the kinds of films that really resonate with me – that make me feel less alone, that bring me joy. I’m interested in making stuff that resonates with children, but doesn’t necessarily talk down to them or punch down. Like Miyazaki, you know, he says: I don’t make children’s films. They just tell me they’re children’s films, but I’m making the films I want to make.
What I loved about those films I watched growing up, they hit me when I was younger, but I still go back to it. All the time. In different parts of my life, if I want a pick-me-up I’m going to put on one of my favorite films from my childhood. I’m hoping this film captures that spirit as well, that it will hit a young person and be something that can grow with them.”
Marvelous and the Black Hole has a distinct visual style that allows for exaggerated imagery of Sammy’s imagination and mental state. Whenever we see Sammy’s angry scribbles scrawl across the screen, it’s an effective way to convey her emotions that is much more poignant than dialogue.
Kate Tsang: “There’s a filmmaking principle that’s also very prevalent in animation where it’s show don’t tell. How can you forefront the visuals instead of the dialogue?”
Part of the film’s striking visuals include black-and-white sequences that resemble stage plays, shown as Sammy listens to recordings of her mother telling stories at night.
Kate Tsang: “I grew up in Northern California and Hong Kong. I had insomnia growing up so I would stay up really, really late. After midnight, the Hong Kong public channels would show old movies and great cartoons. So those sequences were inspired by these wuxia films I watched late in the middle of the night and they blew my mind. They’re so funny, goofy, beautiful, and magical. It seemed really fitting for how Sammy might dream.”
The film chooses magic as its form of artistic expression for its characters, and successfully captures the wonder and enjoyment that it’s capable of producing.
Kate Tsang: “Magic is special because it’s all about making the impossible possible. For a grieving girl like Sammy, getting over your mom’s death seems like an impossible task. But by working with Margot and performing these tiny miracles of sleight of hand magic every day, she’s able to open up again to possibility and wonder.
The core relationship of it was really influenced by my relationship with my grandfather when I was living in Northern California and he came from Hong Kong to raise me. I wanted to focus more on that kind of aspect and make that the core foundation of the story. That intergenerational friendship is so important to my life, but I hadn’t really seen any films that celebrated that kind of relationship between two women.”
Marvelous is certainly a win for representation in several ways, especially when it comes to Asian Americans onscreen and off. While there have been strides made within the movie industry, recent incidents like the Golden Globes categorizing Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari and last year’s Lulu Wang drama The Farewell as foreign language films and thus making them ineligible to compete for best picture prove that there’s still a long way to go.
Kate Tsang: “There is progress being made but there needs to be a lot more, is what I’ll say about that.”
When asked if there are any recent works she would recommend that retain a family-friendly vibe while still touching on deeper topics and themes, Tsang simply suggests her own shows she worked on, Steven Universe Future and Adventure Time: Distant Lands, “because I love them so much”.
Kate Tsang: “One of the goals with the film is just to make people feel less alone or that they were seen.”