From much-discussed Netflix shows to some of the biggest podcast hits of recent times, True Crime has been inspiring storytellers for years now, but we haven’t seen this narrative trend have a great deal of influence on the world of short film. However, when director Steven Chow became obsessed with the story of Jennifer Pan, a 24-year-old Chinese-Vietnamese daughter of immigrant parents who staged a fake home invasion to murder them and free herself of their strict rules, he’d unconsciously discovered the inspiration for his latest short film and Munkie was born.
It was a True Crime podcast that first brought Pan’s story to Chow’s attention and began his fascination with it. Finding himself “watching her interrogation videos online trying to understand how someone like Jennifer would do something like this”, the director admits to being drawn to stories like this “where people do bad things or make bad choices” and was compelled to bring a similar tale to screen. That decision wasn’t motivated by an urge to exploit that story just for the sake of entertainment though, Chow saw it as a chance to challenge himself, provoke discussion and “showcase my voice as a Chinese-Kiwi director with something to say”.
“At the time in mid-2020, Mulan was released and focussed on a heroine’s journey to protect her family and her country”, Chow explains as we discuss the origins of his narrative. “I felt it would be thought-provoking to explore the opposite with an antiheroine archetype where it would be about family dishonour and betrayal. It would give me an opportunity to learn how to generate empathy for our characters and have some fun with the genre too. I would take inspiration from the true story given I hadn’t obtained life story rights but it was more about having creative licence during scripting and how I would translate this for the screen”.
Even though Munkie is based around such a horrific crime, Chow was keen not to portray his central character as just another “cold-blooded psychopath” and though he could obviously never condone the real-life events that inspired his work of fiction, his own upbringing (which he describes as “turbulent”) meant he could relate to the situation Pan had found herself in. More importantly, her story provided inspiration for the filmmaker to create a narrative that could explore “the issues around the generational divide in Asian families and the struggles that their children face, including the need to freely express their individuality and claim their identity”.
Taking his narrative and framing it as a thriller, Chow uses some conventional, but very effective production methods to bring his story to life, really ramping up the tension in the second half of the film. Driven by a captivating performance from Xana Tang, Munkie truly achieves that discussion-starting effect the filmmaker was aiming for. Watching her journey and how she has to face the realities of her actions, you know she’s done something unforgivable here, but somehow Chow allows space for you to actually empathise with her and like a lot of good shorts, the director leaves you thinking about his characters and what happens next, long after its powerful conclusion.
With its world premiere at Fantasia in 2021, Munkie continued to tour film festivals throughout the rest of year, playing the likes of Beyond Fest, Nightstream and San Diego (where it won an Audience Choice award) before premiering online here at Short of the Week. With this short an impressive calling card for Chow and his team, it comes as no real surprise to hear that the director is already working on a feature version of Munkie, he also has a new horror short film and a one-hour doc for Māori TV, about Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, in the works.