A Shot Through the Wall: Aimee Long on police brutality and family dynamics

Aimee Long, director of A Shot Through The Wall, sits down with Cold Tea Collective to discuss police brutality, family dynamics, and bridging communities.

A shot through the wall

Content warning: This article deals with themes of police brutality.

In the spring of 2016, Aimee Long had just stepped off a long flight home across the country. She headed to a Chinese restaurant to meet up with her friends and family. On the television, a high-profile and controversial police-shooting case had just reached a verdict.

A Chinese American cop, Peter Liang, was convicted for accidentally shooting and killing an innocent Black man in a Brooklyn housing project. He was the first New York City cop convicted of an on-duty shooting in 11 years. Liang received community service instead of jail time.

At the restaurant, Long suddenly found herself in the middle of a heated debate. Was this real accountability, or was he a minority scapegoat?

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The controversy triggered Long’s curiosity. She started to research the Liang case and the issue of police brutality. This inspired her feature debut, A Shot Through the Wall.

Mike Tan in A Shot Through the Wall, stands outside his house, with graffiti that reads "RACIST MURDERER".

“I was trying to figure out where I stand in this divide between Black and White and police brutality,” the Chinese American director said. “It became a self-discovery process of trying to find out where I stand as an Asian American person in this spectrum of racism today.”

The surge of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic reignited discussions about the long history of of xenophobia and bias experienced by Asian Americans and solidarity between racial groups. But previous to this, these conversations often left out Asian American voices.

“A lot of other police brutality films came along and got greenlit, but there wasn’t a film from our perspective,” she said.

A Shot Through the Wall is Long’s first feature film. It addresses racism, police brutality, and gun possession. Despite being centered around a police shooting case, to Long, the film is first and foremost a drama about a Chinese American family.

“We started the project because we wanted people to talk more about police violence,” she said. “Now, six to seven years later, [with Black Lives Matter becoming a global movement], everyone is talking about this.”

The Asian American family

A Shot Through the Wall follows Mike Tan, the Chinese American cop, as he grapples with his guilt and the consequences of his actions, while navigating the media and political complexities surrounding his case. The incident sends ripples through his family’s lives as they come together to support him, each in their own way.

Mike Tan, played by Kenny Leu, runs down a hallway reaching for his gun in the film A Shot Through the Wall.
Mike Tan, played by Kenny Leu, runs down a hallway reaching for his gun. Photo Credit: Cara Howe

Long thoughtfully depicts the family dynamics and cultural nuances by weaving in intimate dialogue between Mike and his family members. Many of these conversations take place over the dinner table. The focus on food pays homage to the director’s roots and serves as an expression of love within the family.

There is no shortage of beautiful close-up shots of classic Chinese dishes and the detailed sequences of Tan’s mother cooking in the kitchen. Long especially highlights this during their dinner with Tan‘s Black fiancée and future father-in-law.

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This approach is refreshing. It highlights the voices of the Chinese American community that is often missing in the media.

“With [Asian] stereotypes and tropes, to me it was important to bring something real on the screen,” the award-winning director and writer said. “I think we are very much othered – sometimes it just feels like we don’t belong.”

Finding the family

Before Crazy Rich Asians and the wave of Asian North American films, Long had to fight hard for her on-screen family.  An initial hurdle was finding a casting director who would take on recruiting a majority Asian cast.

“A lot of people told me, ‘you are writing yourself into a corner here because this is predominantly Asian American’,” she said. “It was disheartening.”

It took her nine months to assemble her crew. But it was worth the wait. Long recalled the first time the Tan family met in New York. She was at another film shooting at the time, so she was unable to attend the dinner.

“Kenny [Leu] and I were texting nonstop, and then he was showing me a five-second video of them just eating [and interacting] and I was like, ‘okay, I think I have my family,’” she said.

“Kudos to my crew and my cast. They really stuck with me, and everybody believed in the project and the message we were trying to say.”

The importance of authentic storytelling

From every character to every scene in A Shot Through the Wall, Long was intentional in her decisions. It was important that she authentically represented the individuals and the communities in the film.

Mike Tan's family watching the trial take place, in the film A Shot Through the Wall
Mike Tan’s family watching the trial take place. Photo Credit: Seacia Pavao

“With all the media frenzy, I wanted to highlight that there are real people who are involved behind [this case],” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I treat [their stories] with care.”

The best way to honour these real-life stories, says Long, is to write about what you know.

“The food, the family dynamics, the mother, the father — those were the personal elements of the film that I wanted to showcase,” she said.

Long also drew on the personal experiences of the actors. When Leu auditioned for the role of Mike Tan, he shared how he related to the character as the only boy in a Chinese family.

“He has two sisters, who he feels are more typically successful than he is, but he is the only boy, so he’s like this golden child that his parents still favour,” she said. “He understood and brought authenticity to the role.”

The most difficult part of the process, according to Long, was staying true to herself and showcasing the emotional, intimate family interactions on screen. However, those were the parts of the film that resonated the most with her audience, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. 

For example, in a heartfelt one-on-one conversation, Mike’s sister, played by Lynn Chen, tells Tan’s fiancee who is Black: “I think we were taught to not air dirty laundry; we’re taught to keep our heads down.”

Mike Tan and his fiancée, Candace (played by Ciara Renee) share an embrace in A Shot Through the Wall.
Mike Tan and his fiancée, Candace (played by Ciara Renee) share an embrace. Photo Credit: Bryan Sansivero.

“We [as Asian Americans] don’t talk about these things, and we don’t show our vulnerabilities,” she said. “It was tougher for me to put the vulnerability of that family dynamic out there, but I’m glad it is the part that paid off the most.”

Breaking down walls

In addition to representing Asian voices , Long wanted to highlight that both Black and Chinese communities are suffering from a system of racism that continues to benefit white people. She drives the message home by ending A Shot Through the Wall on a breath-takingly shocking yet poignant note. 

Surprisingly, Long had planned the tragic ending since the very beginning.

“I was trying to get the film to a point where the world is standing, that real people are involved and this keeps on happening.” she said. “People are left behind, so at some point this needs to stop.”

Read More: How to talk to your Asian immigrant parents about racism and Black Lives Matter

The Black and Chinese communities have had a complex history of tension, fueled by the model minority myth

“I wanted to have an emotional impact on people, so they think about it and have a conversation about it,” she said. “The intent was for it to stick with you.”

In order to bridge the divide between the Black and Chinese communities, she encourages the communities to talk to each other and to educate themselves.

Mike Tan and his defense counsel in court, in the film A Shot Through the Wall.
Mike Tan and his defense counsel in court. Photo Credit: Seacia Pavao.

“Changes are happening but it’s going really slowly,” she said. “[In order to] solve a problem like police brutality, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge it, confront it …there’s no overnight solution…we just really want people to talk about it.”

Creating change through film

The up-and-coming director had always known that she wanted to make films with a strong social message.

“Film is an amazing medium that is collaborative,” Long said. “We have some social responsibility in how we tell our stories and influence our audiences.”

With an award-winning feature film under her belt, Long is already working away on the next film. She hopes it will have a lighter and more comedic tone, while still addressing important social issues.

“It’s part of our responsibility as filmmakers to amplify and shine light on topics like these.”

However, she recognizes that, as with many contentious topics, everyone comes with a perceived notion or judgement.

“I just hope people can keep an open mind and go on this journey with me.”

A Shot Through the Wall is out now in select theaters and also on-demand on streaming platforms.

Resources to learn about and support the fight against police brutality:

Learning for Justice (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center)

Vox: What to do instead of calling the police

@samswey on Twitter:For those who are interested in research-based solutions to stop police violence, here’s what you need to know – based on the facts and data. A thread. (1/x)

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