BU Student’s Short Film Tackles Mental Health and Family in the Asian American Community
Christine An’s At What Cost to screen at Center for Computing & Data Sciences December 9
Like many artists, much of Christine An’s personal journey is reflected in her work.
Student filmmaker An (CGS’22, COM’24, Pardee’24) fell in love with film after first falling in love with dance. Her new short film, At What Cost, combines both mediums, and draws on her own experience as a dancer.
As a fundraiser for the film summarizes: The film follows the journey of Amelia, an Asian American ex-dancer, as she’s forced to confront her childhood trauma in the wake of her mother’s death. While Amelia tries to navigate grief and rebuilds a strained relationship with her younger brother, she also learns to make peace with her past and rediscover the courage to return on-stage.
An, the film’s director, partnered with Boston University’s Newbury Center and the Boston nonprofit Asian Women for Health to produce the film; 20 percent of its proceeds will go to the nonprofit, which works to advance culturally and linguistically appropriate health and wellness education in Asian communities.
Giving back was hugely important to An throughout the process. Not only did she want to help support a nonprofit, she also wanted to use the film as a way to bring other Asian Americans together. “I really wanted to build community and have as many Asian Americans represented behind the scenes as possible,” she says.
When An moved to the United States from China as a preteen, her mom encouraged her to assimilate and was strict about not letting her hang out with other Chinese kids. As a result, An began to lose touch with her culture. At What Cost, she says, helped change that in a big way.
“Inviting all these Chinese people from BU on set, having the film’s title card be in Chinese, unashamedly showcasing my ethnicity and my culture—this project definitely made me reconnect with my culture,” An says. “Several people were like, ‘I never knew you spoke Chinese!’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I was hiding.’ This film made me celebrate and feel proud of my cultural identity.”
And, of course, she also made it a point to return the favor for friends: “The support and turnout for the film was overwhelming. The shoot days were all like 12-hour days; that’s asking so much of people to dedicate that time to your project,” An says. “As soon as my film wrapped, I tried to help out on as many sets as possible. I was like, ‘Let me help you, too!’”
At What Cost will have its premiere screening on Saturday, December 9, at the Center for Computing & Data Sciences, 17th floor, at 7 pm. An recently spoke to BU Today about her film and what she learned from the obstacles she encountered.
with Christine An
BU Today: How did the idea for At What Cost come about?
Christine An: It’s a long story, but I was part of Charcoal magazine [BU’s student fashion magazine and arts organization celebrating creatives of color, which shuttered at the end of the spring 2023 semester]. Last semester, I directed a documentary called The Story of Charcoal. While filming an interview with the editor-in-chief, Chike Asuzu (COM’23), they revealed that the final issue was going to be about escapism. The whole thing about Charcoal is that it was a safe haven for POC artists to fully immerse themselves in art—but that also comes with a cost, because the real world doesn’t operate like that. You can’t always shut yourself in a bubble; there can be consequences with escapism. Because of that, I started reflecting on my own experience using art as a form of escapism [first with dance and then film]. I started writing stories about how escapism connects to my life, and it just kind of went from there.
The title also originated from Charcoal. We did a shoot for an issue called “At What Cost?” which explores the idea of reaching higher and higher for something. At what point will you fall, and at what cost? That really inspired the film’s story as well, because it’s about a young dancer who’s tried so hard to pursue her dream, to the extent of going out of her way to disobey her family. At one point, she has this moment of realization—like, what have I done? What are the consequences of me pursuing my dream? And the mom in the story is this stereotypical Asian “tiger mom” who wants her daughter to be perfect and have a “legitimate” career, and she puts so much pressure on her daughter that it breaks their entire relationship. They never have a chance to reconcile before she dies. So for the mom, too, it’s like: at what cost?
BU Today: What were some challenges you faced, and what did they teach you?
Christine An: When I first developed At What Cost into a complete story, I was in a professional film fraternity called Delta Kappa Alpha (DKA). DKA runs one production a semester. I had the idea to pitch this story to them to get the resources to make the film a reality, because it was quite ambitious for a student project. It was going to cost a few thousand dollars [for crew and filming locations]. When I did pitch it to DKA, it ended up not winning the popular vote. I was pretty devastated and embarrassed at the time; I felt like I wasn’t good enough and didn’t think I’d ever have the resources to make this film. But, three days later, I received a fellowship from the College of Communication for an internship I was doing the following summer. It was a pretty large amount of money, and I was able to save some of it alongside picking up a part-time summer job. That gave me enough money to kick-start this project.
Another huge challenge was that we filmed the first weekend that everyone came back to school this fall. Right before we were supposed to start filming, we found out that COM’s Field Production Services (FPS) was no longer lending out equipment for passion projects. You can only reserve equipment for class projects. We were three days out from filming at that point. I looked up local equipment rental—and found out it costs on average $2,000 per weekend to rent all of the equipment we needed. I ended up paying for that out of pocket, which added up to a pretty significant amount because we needed equipment for three weeks in a row. FPS is so understaffed, so you can’t really blame them for the policy change. But at the same time, it really did screw us over.
Looking back, I think both of those things were blessings in disguise. I feel like I was able to prove to myself that you don’t have to depend on these institutions to succeed—you can make your own opportunities. Sometimes you just have to be a little shameless and unapologetically put yourself out there and just go for it. When I look back, I am very impressed with what I was able to do. Even just three months ago, I never could have imagined pulling off this project.
BU Today: How did the Newbury Center become involved in the project?
The Newbury Center has been incredibly supportive, especially in the postproduction process. I initially reached out to them in an email: I was like, “Hey, I’m a first-generation student. This story is also about a first-generation student. We need extras and I think this film could benefit first-gen students who want to meet other first-gens in the arts. Would you be able to help promote it?” And then, Maria Dykema Erb, the executive director, reached out to me to set up a Zoom call to learn more. She was so kind and just started providing me with all these resources—she encouraged me to apply for a Diversity & Inclusion Catalyst Grant, which I ended up receiving. The center helped us secure another grant and also booked and paid for the venue for the premiere. They did all this stuff for the film that I never thought I could have gotten. It’s kind of like, What did I do to deserve this?
BU Today: Now that the film is about to debut, what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers who find themselves facing some of these same challenges?
The film industry is all about proving yourself to other people, but it’s also about proving yourself to yourself. This film really validated me as a filmmaker. It also definitely made me realize my weaknesses and how much further I still need to go—a lot of the people involved are very, very skilled and experienced, and I was like, wow, I have so much more to learn. But it also taught me to just go for it. Don’t ever be afraid or hide behind thinking you’re not good enough. Give yourself a chance.
This industry is also all about connection. [Not just who you know], but also that you can only have a good crew when you have a genuine connection with other people who want to work with you and make art with you. So I would say, pursue every project with the intention of finding people who believe in similar things as you do and who genuinely want to see you succeed. I think art is magical in how it brings people together. That’s what filmmaking does. I think toxicity in the industry can sometimes diminish intentions. So creating a genuine intention and holding onto it is really important.