We maintain distant relationships with our selves in 2019.
In our selfish need to get what’s ours and what is not ours, we present a version of our selves to the world, edited to the point of jettison. We watch ourselves, a bundle of perceptions accumulated from every single person we’ve known, float away into society until we’re swallowed up by the yawning chasm between that projected self and the one we have to fall asleep with. The conclusion is always the same. Cynical good riddance. We pretend to cut ourselves off from the norms and rules and build our own routines. Maybe we meditate or listen to self-help podcasts. After all, finding comfort in aloneness is the ultimate enlightenment. Is it not? Who needs people? People are loud and disappointing. People are the worst.
And yet, what if? What if people don’t think that we succeed in our solitude, but pity us instead? What if we are mislead in our righteous isolation? What if the only self is the self conjured by others’ observations of us? What if a chance encounter with a faceless stranger on an empty chatroom is the chance encounter to end all encounters?
Otto lives in Tokyo. She moved here from Berlin 2 years ago because she found her neuroses to be incompatible with the city’s laissez-faire chaos. Here, she drives a tiny mobile convenience store selling coffee, sweets and onigiri to commuters. Structure, efficiency, certainty in routine. She likes the safety of small spaces where you can see all four walls and the HTML chatroom on which her alternate self, SAKI_1991_ (whose profile picture she sneak-snapped of the Pink Girl who comes to her truck for a strawberry sandwich daily), is three months deep into an online relationship with NIKO*25m52 – Maxwell, irl. Maxwell arrived in Tokyo 6 months ago for a two-week vacation. He’s still here: staying in a male-only capsule hotel in Tokyo’s red-light district, somewhat by accident. He had seen its pod beds on Atlas Obscura and wondered if they would fit his 4ft long legs. They don’t. But it’s cheap, it’s warm and he likes his Google-Translated conversations with soft-spoken Riku – the gangly Japanese reception boy. It was Riku who’d introduced Maxwell to the chatroom, hoping its possibilities in strangers would catalyse whatever it was in this hotel guest’s life that needed catalysing. He takes a photo of the two of them for Maxwell to use as NIKO*25m52’s profile picture. Which one are you? SAKI_1991_ asks. The left one, Maxwell says without thinking.
The following is the conversation I had with the NOWNESS team about my new short film, I’ve Been Thinking About What You Look Like. We shot it on Tokyo’s only two days of rain in March before our stars, Maddie and Harry, jetted off to their next, much bigger films. I’m very proud of what we made, and what it speaks to.
NOWNESS: The story of Maxwell and Otto begins with social media. There are many details in the film showing that both characters rely on translation apps for Japanese. Here, social media is shown to be a self-deceiving solution to get rid of loneliness (social media + translation apps). What do you think makes social media a concern or sometimes a fear for people?
MZ: The use of a chatroom platform is a means of exploring escapism, not loneliness. We explore both sides of the coin. On the one hand, social media is the ultimate tool for connecting with likeminded people in any corner of the world, who you would never have been able to speak to before. On the other, the most frightening thing about digital consumption today is its sensationalism, hyperbole and warped reality that can be counterproductive if not damaging. This film centres on identity. Those who don’t know themselves go in search of identity in other places, as they aren’t comfortable in their own skin. Loneliness is, on the most part, a symptom of a greater issue, and is not something you just “get rid of” or “摆脱”. Neither Otto nor Maxwell are really cogniscent of their loneliness in isolation. They are, however, acutely aware that they are self-imposed outsiders, trying to discover who they are so that they might be comfortable with being alone.
MZ: Otto’s opening monologue is not as simplistic as a depressed dismissal of the real world – rather, she poses a question of her identity. She muses on the alternate versions of ourselves that we project into the world – the way we want people to see us, not necessarily who we are. Is that denial, or is that self-preservation? Does it matter? She wonders whether she has gone too far in her inaccurate representation of herself to the extent that she might be jealous of that representation that isn’t even real. I wrote this monologue because this is something that the majority of the population do not think about, and I think they should.
NOWNESS: Both characters have chosen fake profile photos for their chatroom communications – concealing appearance, nationality, etc. People choose to express themselves though unreal photos, representing a seemingly “better self” but ignoring their inner thoughts. Do you think this is the reason behind people’s concern and even trepidation towards social media?
MZ: I think the real problem is that people are not concerned enough about it. Like you say, people are so deep down a rabbit hole of their altered identity in a digital space that they ignore alarm bells in their own psyche.
NOWNESS: When Otto seeks opinions from the Pink Girl, we cut to the win-screen of Windows Solitaire. Does it aim to trigger a particular reaction from the audience?
MZ: Social interactions, whether online or in life, do represent a bizarre sort of gameplay. Whether we like it or not, we as humans do have an inherent understanding of the few inevitable outcomes, and yet we like to tell ourselves that we are the outlier, that it will be different this time. We tiptoe around the truth, court each other, avoid uncomfortable conversations around what we really think for fear of judgment. The cards are tongue-in-cheek representation of that voluntary gameplay. For the generation that exists on dating apps, chatrooms and social platforms, this old-school Solitaire win-screen does trigger a bit of nostalgia – a reminder of what technology used to represent in a much simpler time.
“… we as humans do have an inherent understanding of the few inevitable outcomes, and yet we like to tell ourselves that we are the outlier, that it will be different this time.”
NOWNESS: To a certain extent, the image on social media may represent the inner projections of people, in other words, their ideal self. This kind of projection is not only showcased through Maxwell and Otto’s act of using other people’s avatars, but also through the tacit understanding between them, expressing that lonely people tend to escape from their true selves and somehow like minds become “friends”. At the same time, people may pretend to have certain achievements online when they can’t fulfill them in the real world. The confusion of identities, and the struggle between the virtual and real worlds, are expressed through various rhythm-interlaced frames and chaotic BGM. What specifically did you wish to emphasize through these details? On a deeper level, do you think social media can make “marginalized” or lonely people even more marginalized in the real world?
MZ: Otto and Maxwell both have a moral quandary with their white lies that they’ve maintained for so long. Of course, there is no blanket approach or outcome to any one person’s lived experience with anxiety, or their sense of self. There are many examples of people losing touch with reality, but I’ve also seen very hopeful representations of what the digital world can help people where their immediate real world cannot. For instance, I recently watched an endearing and eloquent account by a kid in the US on VRChat about his struggle with social anxiety, ADHD and bullying at school. The way his older friends address his anxieties isn’t with pity or coddling. They give quite direct feedback that allows him the space to come to his own conclusions.
NOWNESS: The climax of this film appears when the two finally found each other in the real world. Does it point to a claim that the more common ground you share between social media and reality, the more power you gain from social media that can help you in the real world? Would you like to speak from your own experience?
MZ: I actually think it’s extremely important to have very clear separations between what is public and private, what is virtual and what is your real life. Spend time with your family. Turn your phone off during dinner so you can have a real debate with a friend. I was recently interviewed by a writer who couldn’t understand what I meant when I said “you shouldn’t live your life through your phone”. What are you going to remember when you’re older? Staring at your screen 6 hours a day? Sure, you can use social media as a resource – for news, for opinions, for information, for community, for staying in touch with people you can’t see face-to-face, but it cannot define you.
NOWNESS: The emergence of social media has allowed people to breakthrough their own limitations, but in turn, many people have fallen into other forms of restrictions. How were you inspired to create this story? One that expresses the conflicts between the virtual and the real world? When can social media ever bring a win-win situation?
MZ: Regardless of the medium of my work (writing, directing, etc.), I always want to make people think about something they’d never thought about before – or to push people to reassess their perspective on an issue they’d previously accepted as normal. The survival and positive growth of social media really lies in community and culture. Like real life, online communities can only succeed where there is mutual respect and open-mindedness.
NOWNESS: What would you like to say to those who watched the film?
MZ: Pay attention. Have self-awareness, and seek out information.
NOWNESS: You once mentioned in an interview that “children of immigrants are an interesting group of people because you can feel like you’re in a no man’s land” This film also seems to insinuate some parts of this theme. Apart from the conflict between self-cognition/expression in the virtual and the real world, are there any indications of cultural conflicts or family history in the film?
MZ: There is definitely an element of being an outsider, in I’ve Been Thinking About What You Look Like. Both Maxwell and Otto are immigrants to a foreign land, where they have tried as much as possible to adopt cultural attributes so as to feel like they’re a part of society, which is very normal for any type of immigrant moving to a different city or country. What neither character have understood yet is that their “otherness” is an asset. We should be proud of where we’ve come from and what we can contribute to the social fabric of a new home.
“What are you going to remember when you’re older? Staring at your screen 6 hours a day?”
MADELEINE MADDEN as OTTO
HARRY RICHARDSON as MAXWELL
EIJI FUKUI as RIKU and NIKO*25m52
MAYU UEMERA as PINK GIRL and SAKI_1991_
written and directed by MARGARET ZHANG
SAMANTHA OLIVER (background)
JANIE CHARTIER (twin brains)
assistant producer DAVID DICEMBRE
director of photography MÉNAD KESRAOUI
1st ac GAETANO CAMPOLONGO
gaffer VINCE PAUL
sound recordist PAUL DOROSHEVICH
soundtrack BEDE BENJAMIN-KORPORAAL
colour grading ADRIAN HAUSER (cutting edge)
hair and make up ANA CANO
styling MARGARET ZHANG with
eyewear by LINDBERG, fashion by SONG FOR THE MUTE, COMMAS, GRENSON