After he moved back home to the Bay Area in 2021, weighing a move to Los Angeles amid the pandemic, the filmmaker Sean Wang would often spend time with his two grandmothers. Yi Yan Fuei, his 96-year-old Nǎi Nai (paternal grandmother), and Chang Li Hua, his 86-year-old Wài Pó (maternal grandmother), live in the same house together, and Wang quickly began to observe two versions of them. There they were, enmeshed in the quiet rhythms of their daily lives — folding laundry, peeling fruit, napping in their shared bed. Then, Wang, 29, would intrude, coaxing out their playful sides: receiving a slap on the butt or spurring a dance session.
His time with them, enjoying both their tranquillity and these moments of youth-like joy, was juxtaposed against an alarming spate of anti-Asian violence that was happening on streets around the Bay Area to grandparents just like his. It was a dissonance that both angered Wang and magnified this time with his grandmothers. Wang took to his camera to make what he thought of as a home video of them, enshrining their routines in “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” a documentary short that was recently nominated for an Oscar and is streaming on Disney+.
“When I walk into the kitchen and I see them there, reading the newspaper or washing the dishes, from a very personal level, I want to remember that image,” Wang said in a video call from his apartment in Los Angeles, where he did eventually move. “I want to remember what it was like to see them do that.”
The film, alternately cheeky and humanist, flits between two visual languages, what Wang called “the movie of their lives and the movie that they’re in.” Silly skits that the director constructs for them — arm wrestling, watching “Superbad” — sit alongside quotidian snippets of their inner lives. The film is also philosophical, as his grandmothers reflect on hard pasts and consider the realities of aging.
Wang and his family’s reaction to the Oscar nomination was captured on video and recently went viral: Wang jumping for joy and embracing his grandmothers before they can even process the announcement on the telecast.
“You earned it,” Chang said to Wang over a joint video call with Yi from their home in Fremont, Calif. “You believed in us when you pitched the idea of this film.”
That moment of exhilaration on nomination morning was one of many in recent weeks for Wang. The night before, he had flown back home for the telecast from the Sundance Film Festival, where his debut feature film, “Dìdi,” had just premiered. Within minutes of the announcement, he was out the door, on his way back to Park City, Utah, where, days later, “Dìdi” would be bought by Focus Features and would also take home an audience award.
Those achievements, though, were not integral to the pride he had in his work, Wang said. He seemed earnest; both films are autobiographical and deeply personal, and he had made the movies he wanted to make.
“If I don’t look at my phone, nothing in my day-to-day has really shifted all that much,” he said. “My room is still messy.”
It’s the grounded attitude of someone who is his grandmothers’ grandson: Throughout “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” his grandmas tell Wang that after he leaves home, and the antics and the camera leave with him, life for them will simply return to its mundane motions.
The film gave him an infrastructure to hear about things he never knew, traumatic pasts that older immigrants tend to rather forget about.
“You see it in their eyes in the movie; they are painful memories,” Wang said. “There’s a reason they don’t want to talk about it all the time because they’re like, our lives are better now, why would we keep reliving this? But I was very upfront with them of how important it was: You are the owner of your story and we don’t have this recorded anywhere, and if we don’t record this in some capacity, that’s how you lose family history.”
The most powerful sentiment in the film, though, comes from his grandmothers’ attitudes in the face of loss and pain. “Life is short,” Yi said over the video call. “We can only focus on this life. I’m still so happy in such an old age, which is really unexpected. Whether happy or not, we have to live our life, so it’s better to be happy.”
Lately, Wang’s grandmothers’ days are at least a little less quiet, with the nomination and the film’s Disney+ release. “Can people all over the world see it?” Chang asked Wang in awe.
“As long as they subscribe,” he replied.
Both of Wang’s grandmothers plan to accompany him to the Oscars in March. They already have a stylist to get them ready for the ceremony.
“I never thought of going there,” Chang said. “Isn’t this a dream? I often wonder if this is a dream. Actually, I never dreamed of it.”