Reangsei Phos grew up with onions in every corner of his house.
That was his mother’s doing, as was splashing water throughout the house and arranging furniture in a certain way to ward off bad energy, says Phos.
It wasn’t until he got older that he realized that these superstitions were often rooted in myth and uncommon outside of East Asian cultures.
“Looking back on those memories, I remember the difficulties navigating my mother as she was really superstitious,” says Phos.
“So what if I made a movie about it?”
In 2020, Phos said he dropped out of film school at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) to direct his first short thriller film. talisman. It follows a superstitious Chinese family who settle into a new home that their son Yi believes is haunted, but is said to be protected by similar superstitions Phos grew up with.
“I’ve never really seen this story, especially in East Asia. This is a story I want to tell,” said Phos.
The film premiered in the spring and received an audience award at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY) in Seattle and was picked up by a distribution label on YouTube last month. His TikTok account dedicated to his journey as a filmmaker has over 100 million views.
Phos hopes his success continues and helps him tell more stories featuring Asian characters on the big screen.
“I place a lot of emphasis on Asian representation and putting ourselves in the spotlight and representing ourselves in a way that feels real,” says Phos.
“There wasn’t really a backup plan”
Since filming began in the summer of 2020, COVID-19 restrictions, staffing issues and funding proved to be some of the biggest challenges Phos’ crew faced early on.
But even after he finished filming and editing almost a year later, the stakes were still high with around $10,000 in support from an Indiegogo campaign. NFFTY was their only shot at recognition as it was the only festival to accept their film out of about 15 other festivals they approached, says Phos.
“I took a big risk dropping out of school… if it didn’t pay off, there wasn’t really a backup plan,” Phos said.
While it was recognized at the festival and picked up by the film platform ALTER on YouTube shortly thereafter, it wasn’t enough. People didn’t flock to the film in the way he expected, he said.
So he turned to TikTok to expand his reach. There he showed behind-the-scenes clips from talisman and other updates for future movies. Today his most viral video seeking auditions for his next film has over 800,000 likes.
“If we hadn’t won the festival, if we hadn’t been picked up by ALTER and gone viral on TikTok, I don’t think my parents or I would have thought it was doable,” he says.
Angela Wang, Producer of Phos for Talisman, says that while the progress made so far is exciting, there is still a long way to go.
“I think there is still a long way to go in terms of representing Asia,” Wang said.
Wang, a fourth-year film student at TMU, met Phos during film school, where she recalls being one of the few Asians in her program. She says a big reason she got into the industry is to help other Asians in North America get media coverage.
“This is just the beginning,” Wang said.
As Wang finishes school, Phos says he’s just finishing his second film in Toronto. By the time he’s 25, he hopes to have a major feature film under his belt.
“It all boils down to that at the moment,” Phos said.