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Kayla Abuda Galang directs a loving tribute to San Diego with When You Left Me on That Boulevard

A film centered on Thanksgiving and “the warm and suffocating embrace of family”

Local actress Gina May co-stars in a love letter to family - and Paradise Hills.
Local actress Gina May co-stars in a love letter to family - and Paradise Hills.

By some metrics, we’ve entered a new golden age of Asian cinema. Netflix recently inked a $2.5 billion deal for South Korean movies and TV shows, and just last month, the super-streamer released four new Japanese shows. Beef, featuring a cast of mostly Asian-Americans, was well received, and given credit for playing against the docile Asian stereotype.

But where are the Filipino-American films in this new Asian wave? “Growing up, I felt left out, not seeing people who looked like me on TV and in the movies,” says Filipino-American actress and singer Gina May over coffee. She recently co-starred in When You Left Me on That Boulevard, a well regarded short film written by, directed by, and featuring Filipino-Americans — to be more specific, Filipino San Diegans.

The film was shot on location in Southeast’s Paradise Hills, and tells its story from the perspective of Ly, a teenage girl trying to venture beyond the confines of her traditional and protective mother, who was born in the Philippines. An only child, Ly has a big crush on a boy and wants to fit in with her cool, pot-smoking, boy-crazy cousins. May, 25, was cast as Crizzy, one of those cousins; her character is into gossiping about boys and playing it cool.

Writer-director Kayla Abuda Galang set the film in 2006 — the year she left San Diego.

The story: the family’s Thanksgiving celebration is about to begin when the three cousins announce they’re going to the store. But instead, they drive off to get high. Crizzy and her cousin have obviously done this before, but it’s the first time for Ly, who sits in the back seat, paying her dues with a prolonged coughing spell.

May, a former Monte Vista High School cheerleader, points out some parallels between herself and her character. “Growing up, we were always trying to pretend we were the cool cousins,” she says. “I have a million cousins, and we’d all attend these huge family gatherings. The biggest difference is that Crizzy’s a stoner and I’ve never smoked, because I have asthma.”

The film’s writer and director, Kayla Abuda Galang, 32, moved from San Diego to Texas with her family in 2006, when she was 15. It was a pivotal, coming-of-age year, which is why she picked it for her film’s setting. Galang says she still feels a great connection to San Diego, and to Paradise Hills in particular. She misses the weather and the food (especially the burritos), and she misses her close community. “Moving to Texas, at least initially, there were not a lot of Filipinos,” she says. She was one of three at her new high school.

May: “People tell me after watching it that it makes them miss their family."

Galang conceived the film during the pandemic, when there was so much uncertainty about the future. It made her realize how much she missed her family, and also her upbringing and adolescence in San Diego, both of which she felt new appreciation for. This was the genesis for When You Left Me on That Boulevard, which became a loving tribute to San Diego and what she describes as “the warm and suffocating embrace of family.” And it was because of that powerful, pandemic-induced gratitude that she centered the film on Thanksgiving.

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Much has been written about Covid and the adverse effects of the prolonged isolation it engendered. But sometimes, as in Galang’s case, having time to oneself to reflect and reassess can lead to a burst of creativity. “The pandemic led to the creative reinvigoration of my filmmaking practice, while at the same time it made me miss my community and family. I knew I didn’t want to take that for granted anymore.” The city, together with the people who helped shape the person she would become, became the impetus for her creation.

The 12-minute short film was praised by the New York Times, which noted its “bustling images and delicate vibes, inner-voice stillness and subtle soundscapes.” It won the Sundance Grand Jury Short Film Prize; the citation called it a “directorial feat of freshness” and an “uproarious take on extended family, irreverence and tradition, with incredible attunement to details and frame.” It also won the Jury Award for Vision at Southwest by Southwest, and it’s been submitted for an Academy Award. The team that produced it is now in the process of expanding it into a feature-length movie — an effort that’s being supported by Sundance.

“The film just pulls on your heartstrings,” says May. Having seen the film, I can concur, and would add that the magic is that you don’t realize they’re being pulled. There are no warning signs; the emotion creeps up on you, cumulatively, without contrivance. There’s not an inauthentic note in the entire film. What appears to be a story about gossiping girls getting stoned before a Thanksgiving feast turns out to be an intimate but emotionally measured meditation on the preciousness and protectiveness of not just family, but family life.

May says that “People tell me after watching it that it makes them miss their family. ‘Oh man, I miss my cousins,’ or, ‘I remember the first time I ever smoked, and it was with my cousins in a car.’ It’s the things you don’t appreciate when you’re little, when you’re a teenager. But when you’re older, you’re like, ‘Okay, yeah, this is my comfort.’”

Once the holiday meal is over, the nosy and no-holds-barred auntie sings the schmaltzy Karaoke song — Dan Byrd’s “Boulevard” — from which film’s title is taken. Director Galang and her cast are laughing with and not at auntie as she belts out the tune:

Never knew that it would go so far/ When you left me on that boulevard

The camera pans the room, moving over a half-eaten turkey and traditional Filipino fare. Then it finds Ly, her eyes droopy hours after her first experiment with pot, head resting gently on her mother’s lap. Auntie is stealing the show, all eyes on her. May’s Crizzy is clapping and singing along.

Maybe today/ I’ll make you stay/ A little while just for a smile/ And love together

And then the camera settles on Ly, closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep, as her mother strokes her head of black hair.

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Local actress Gina May co-stars in a love letter to family - and Paradise Hills.
Local actress Gina May co-stars in a love letter to family - and Paradise Hills.

By some metrics, we’ve entered a new golden age of Asian cinema. Netflix recently inked a $2.5 billion deal for South Korean movies and TV shows, and just last month, the super-streamer released four new Japanese shows. Beef, featuring a cast of mostly Asian-Americans, was well received, and given credit for playing against the docile Asian stereotype.

But where are the Filipino-American films in this new Asian wave? “Growing up, I felt left out, not seeing people who looked like me on TV and in the movies,” says Filipino-American actress and singer Gina May over coffee. She recently co-starred in When You Left Me on That Boulevard, a well regarded short film written by, directed by, and featuring Filipino-Americans — to be more specific, Filipino San Diegans.

The film was shot on location in Southeast’s Paradise Hills, and tells its story from the perspective of Ly, a teenage girl trying to venture beyond the confines of her traditional and protective mother, who was born in the Philippines. An only child, Ly has a big crush on a boy and wants to fit in with her cool, pot-smoking, boy-crazy cousins. May, 25, was cast as Crizzy, one of those cousins; her character is into gossiping about boys and playing it cool.

Writer-director Kayla Abuda Galang set the film in 2006 — the year she left San Diego.

The story: the family’s Thanksgiving celebration is about to begin when the three cousins announce they’re going to the store. But instead, they drive off to get high. Crizzy and her cousin have obviously done this before, but it’s the first time for Ly, who sits in the back seat, paying her dues with a prolonged coughing spell.

May, a former Monte Vista High School cheerleader, points out some parallels between herself and her character. “Growing up, we were always trying to pretend we were the cool cousins,” she says. “I have a million cousins, and we’d all attend these huge family gatherings. The biggest difference is that Crizzy’s a stoner and I’ve never smoked, because I have asthma.”

The film’s writer and director, Kayla Abuda Galang, 32, moved from San Diego to Texas with her family in 2006, when she was 15. It was a pivotal, coming-of-age year, which is why she picked it for her film’s setting. Galang says she still feels a great connection to San Diego, and to Paradise Hills in particular. She misses the weather and the food (especially the burritos), and she misses her close community. “Moving to Texas, at least initially, there were not a lot of Filipinos,” she says. She was one of three at her new high school.

May: “People tell me after watching it that it makes them miss their family."

Galang conceived the film during the pandemic, when there was so much uncertainty about the future. It made her realize how much she missed her family, and also her upbringing and adolescence in San Diego, both of which she felt new appreciation for. This was the genesis for When You Left Me on That Boulevard, which became a loving tribute to San Diego and what she describes as “the warm and suffocating embrace of family.” And it was because of that powerful, pandemic-induced gratitude that she centered the film on Thanksgiving.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Much has been written about Covid and the adverse effects of the prolonged isolation it engendered. But sometimes, as in Galang’s case, having time to oneself to reflect and reassess can lead to a burst of creativity. “The pandemic led to the creative reinvigoration of my filmmaking practice, while at the same time it made me miss my community and family. I knew I didn’t want to take that for granted anymore.” The city, together with the people who helped shape the person she would become, became the impetus for her creation.

The 12-minute short film was praised by the New York Times, which noted its “bustling images and delicate vibes, inner-voice stillness and subtle soundscapes.” It won the Sundance Grand Jury Short Film Prize; the citation called it a “directorial feat of freshness” and an “uproarious take on extended family, irreverence and tradition, with incredible attunement to details and frame.” It also won the Jury Award for Vision at Southwest by Southwest, and it’s been submitted for an Academy Award. The team that produced it is now in the process of expanding it into a feature-length movie — an effort that’s being supported by Sundance.

“The film just pulls on your heartstrings,” says May. Having seen the film, I can concur, and would add that the magic is that you don’t realize they’re being pulled. There are no warning signs; the emotion creeps up on you, cumulatively, without contrivance. There’s not an inauthentic note in the entire film. What appears to be a story about gossiping girls getting stoned before a Thanksgiving feast turns out to be an intimate but emotionally measured meditation on the preciousness and protectiveness of not just family, but family life.

May says that “People tell me after watching it that it makes them miss their family. ‘Oh man, I miss my cousins,’ or, ‘I remember the first time I ever smoked, and it was with my cousins in a car.’ It’s the things you don’t appreciate when you’re little, when you’re a teenager. But when you’re older, you’re like, ‘Okay, yeah, this is my comfort.’”

Once the holiday meal is over, the nosy and no-holds-barred auntie sings the schmaltzy Karaoke song — Dan Byrd’s “Boulevard” — from which film’s title is taken. Director Galang and her cast are laughing with and not at auntie as she belts out the tune:

Never knew that it would go so far/ When you left me on that boulevard

The camera pans the room, moving over a half-eaten turkey and traditional Filipino fare. Then it finds Ly, her eyes droopy hours after her first experiment with pot, head resting gently on her mother’s lap. Auntie is stealing the show, all eyes on her. May’s Crizzy is clapping and singing along.

Maybe today/ I’ll make you stay/ A little while just for a smile/ And love together

And then the camera settles on Ly, closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep, as her mother strokes her head of black hair.

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