As Angie Wang herself puts it, she's lived many lives—almost too many to count. She is or has been a mother, nonprofit leader, drug dealer, and filmmaker; she's done it all. But no matter how disparate her various experiences may seem on paper, they've all, in some capacity, touched her debut directorial feature, MDMA. Loosely based on her own experiences, MDMA follows Wang's journey as she struggles to make ends meet at a prestigious private university in the early '80s. However, once her financial aid is cut, Wang turns toward synthesizing ecstasy using her school's resources—eventually becoming one of the West Coast's biggest distributors of ecstasy in its final days as an unscheduled drug.
The daughter of Asian immigrants—whose own struggles colored her childhood—Wang has a life story that darts between many worlds and heady topics. Because, in between slo-mo sex scenes and club sequences, is a narrative about a young woman coming into her own, despite being a fish out of water in more ways than one. From interracial relations to the class divide within Asian-American communities to handling the stereotypes typically ascribed to members of the "model minority," MDMA is a rich, self-aware, and, above all, candid study of one woman's extraordinary youth.
Read our Q&A with Wang to learn more about the film's parallels to her own experiences, below.
How close was the movie to your actual experience?
It's about 30 years of my life condensed into a one-year narrative, so I would say that everything that happened in the movie happened to me personally, just not necessarily in that time frame or in that particular way. There were certain things that I had to do in order to protect other people, too. My lawyer was like, "You can't say that," so I fudged a lot of stuff. Some of it is total bullshit, but I wanted to write from a very true, authentic, emotional place. So I would say that all the childhood flashbacks are deadlifts from my childhood, and all those other events did occur, just over the span of about 30 years.
Speaking of the lawyer, was there any point where you were like, "Oh, god, I'm gonna get in trouble?"
Yeah, it is a pretty intense narrative. Well, you know, it wasn't illegal back then. It wasn’t on the DEA list of controlled substances, so by the letter of the law, I didn't really break it back then. Breaking into the chemistry lab, though… But, you know, kids will be kids.
You gotta be really careful with what you put out there. But, for me, [the film] was really about the emotional through line of the character and her journey. So I assembled the facts from the tapestry of my life, around her emotional through line.
So what made you want to tackle this really emotional, personal narrative in the first place?
It was a long, winding path for me to filmmaking. I lived a bunch of different lives. I actually worked in Silicon Valley in tech sales, and I found myself in the situation where I was like, "I don't have to sling hash anymore for a living." So I was this PTA mom in Hillsborough [in the Bay Area], and I found that I'm a very shitty PTA mom. I'm fucking crazy-bored, and it's not resonating with me. I always felt like an outlier, like an outcast, like I didn't quite fit in. I kept thinking, I'm a girl, really, I should be dead like a hundred different times, a hundred different ways. So I felt a very persistent urge and need to give back.
I was watching TV one day, and they were talking about how the educational system in California was so broken, and I'm muttering profanity under my breath. My little voice was like, You know, if you don't do anything about it, you're just part of the problem, and you should keep your mouth shut. So I thought, Well, what can I do? So I founded this nonprofit called Grow, and we basically went into at-risk communities and worked with middle school kids to give them a venue to give and receive support. To talk about the very real challenges that are going on in their lives. For me, the way to get them to open up was to just be very blunt and straightforward about places that I've been—my background, mistakes that I've made, that type of thing. It sort of gave them permission to be able to own their own shit. Then I found that, when I went to go pitch to my very well-heeled neighbors, it was very challenging for them to want to connect emotionally with the stories of these kids. It's intense. These kids, they're in a lot of pain all the time. Their mom's strung out or their dad's in jail. Their brother got shot.
So I kept thinking, That's kind of what's going wrong with our society right now. I feel like empathy is kind of bleeding out of our society; like, I'm a firm believer that technology has outpaced our humanity at this point. For me, I'm a kid who was brought up on film and television, and I thought, that always had the ability to transport me, to inspire me, to move me. I think it's a very powerful tool in terms of shaping hearts and minds. So I slowly got this crazy idea together that I was going to make a movie. My friends were like, "You are batshit out of your mind. You can't even shoot something properly on your phone. What are you talking about?"
It was a very long learning process, but it was one that I was really passionate about. The script evolved from a journal entry which my therapist urged me to write. At a certain point during the process, I looked up, and I was like, "Oh, it's like a runaway freight train now. There's no turning back now."
What was it like talking to your parents about this film? What did they think of it?
In my immediate family, the only person who's seen it is my sister, and she's not speaking to me. It was really challenging in terms of bringing it up. My mother still hasn't seen it. I don't think she wants to see it—I don't think she wants to see herself portrayed in the light that I saw her during my early youth. We've had a fractured relationship, but I'm like, “I’m a 52-year-old fucking woman now, and my mother's not gonna last forever." I would say we've reconciled, but I have to limit my exposure to her. I love her, but there's still... We have a lot of history.
My father understands it, kind of. He also hasn't seen it. He's like, "Can I watch it alone?" But I wanted to watch it with him, so I told him I would screen it for him the next time he's in L.A. So that should be quite an emotional journey.
I'm close to my cousin, who I'm hanging out with now. He actually has been super-supportive. He was really more like a brother to me when we were growing up. He's like, "Ang, it's tough, as your male cousin especially, to see this. It's kind of like reading your journal." [The film is] hard, emotionally, for people I know, but I think it’s also a tool for me to get to know them better, and for them to get to know me better. For my daughter, it basically was a talking piece for a lot of stuff. I think it was invaluable for us.
We're in this era where we’re finally starting to see Asian-American stories onscreen...
Yes! I've waited 52 years for this. We’ve been having a watershed moment.
This summer alone we have To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians, which are all really amazing stories that prove representation is key. But both of these stories are very privileged. They’re told from a perspective that is what a lot of people have come to expect when they think “Asian-American”—educated, upwardly mobile, wealthy. In contrast, your story is very working-class. What was it like for you to see that dichotomy? Because while there's been progress in some way, your film is one of the few that really tackles the socioeconomic disparity that exists for a lot of Asian Americans.
Yeah, it's pretty gritty in comparison to Crazy Rich Asians, which is a beautiful, sumptuous film. I'd love to have a budget to shoot like that one day. But I do tackle things like domestic violence, especially in the Asian-American community. It's sort of taboo though; like, we don't talk about it outside of our community or our house. But I think that is the type of secret that can keep us really locked up in shame, and make us feel disconnected. It causes all kinds of depression, anxiety, that type of thing.
I think it's important for us to be really fearless in terms of shining a light [on it though]. The socioeconomic thing is so real. My cousin, he's a surgeon now. He actually made good on being the “good kid.” He finished Stanford, went to med school...
The Asian-American dream for sure.
Right. He's very traditional. We still chuckle because we were brought up very working-class by immigrant parents who were very concerned about resources. So I'll still be like, "No, no, no, we gotta save that. Wrap that up." Or, "I'm stealing this toilet paper."
Oh my god, the toilet paper thing.
Dude, I have fucking stolen... I have lifted toilet paper from every expensive restaurant that I have ever dined in.
Right, because that shit's like what... triple ply?
You're like a soul sister. You get it. It's very real, though. I think especially for my generation, my father really did grow up during the Sino-Japanese War. It's definite siege mentality for him. But he doesn't throw anything away, because it shapes how you grow up. He still has canned peaches in his garage from like 20 years ago, and I'm like, "Pop, I'm pretty sure these have salmonella now." He has Sea Breeze, which is this antiseptic zit stuff that I had when I was in high school. It's like 30 years old and separated, and still sits in his bathroom cabinet. I try to throw shit away, and he just fishes it out and puts it right back, because that might save your life one day. Sometimes I catch myself though. I'm like, “Goddamn, I really am my father's daughter. I still have it.” When I cook food, it's gotta be enough for an army, because, god forbid, someone were to come to my house and walk away hungry. I think I still have that mentality. If I love you, then I will sit you down and feed you at my table.
Did that sort of experience shape the film in any way for you? Your working-class background in terms of wanting to tell a story that is, again, very different than the prototypical Asian-American story?
Yeah, I think it's important to not defy stereotypes for the sake of defying stereotypes but to be authentic in terms of your voice and where you come from. It's funny because when I first shopped this movie around after it was made, people were like, "Well, we don't really know what to do with it. We don't really know what box to put it in." And I'm like, "What are you talking about?" They were like, "Well, it's Asian, but it's urban," which is code for black.
I was so infuriated, but I kept thinking to myself, if I had written a movie that was about an Asian-American girl who did math problems, wrapped wontons, and ate wonton soup, I think I would have been applauded. They would have been like, "Yes, this is integral to the Asian-American experience.” And it may be for some people, but it was not my experience. So I think it's important to show that we are just as varied as the rest of society. We come from just as many challenging backgrounds as the rest of society, and we can own the richness of our culture in that fashion, rather than just tell these very sterile types of [representation exist]. You know, I don't need a white dude telling me what my experience as an Asian-American woman has been in this country.
MDMA is in theaters September 14.