ReelAsian22: Origin Story

Kulap Vilaysack, former co-host of the Who Charted? comedy podcast and creator of the Seeso streaming series, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, can now add filmmaker to her resumé. Her new feature documentary, Origin Story, depicts a personal journey through her own family history, to uncover the answers to questions she had long been too afraid to ask. Haunted by a memory of her mother telling her, in the midst of a heated parental argument, that her father is not her real father, she sets out to uncover the truth and meet the family she never knew she had. For Vilaysack, this journey was an essential step to preparing herself for motherhood, but capturing it on film was not always the plan.

During a post-screening Q&A at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, Vilaysack said the inspiration came suddenly, when being interviewed by a friend for another program.  She saw the camera setup and suddenly thought it might be a good idea to capture the journey this way, to record it. She thought if she could get her parents recorded on camera, they would be forced to tell the truth, to confess, as she also explains during voice-over narration in the film. And so the journey began, though the road was long; the majority of this footage was captured a few years ago, before the success of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, and set aside. Speaking about the difficulties of completing the film, Vilaysack admitted she was too close to the footage at the time, too angry, and could not see a way through the story. But now, finally, there is closure; and the completed film, Origin Story, is an emotional rollercoaster of an experience, messy and painful and wonderful in all the best ways.

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An animated sequence from Origin Story.

Origin Story covers a lot of ground, in terms of time, geography, and themes, but Vilaysack and her editors have done an incredible job structuring the footage and creating a simple and clear narrative. The film revolves around Vilaysack’s point of view and organizes the footage in such a way as to mirror her emotional development throughout the journey. She travels to Minnesota to see her parents and eventually to Laos to meet her biological father, but snippets of conversation with her mother in Minnesota, for example, will not be revealed until much later in the film, when they become pertinent to what Vilaysack is feeling at certain stages of her trip. The journey still unfolds linearly, for the most part; the success of the film’s structure is in giving audiences a straightforward dramatic arc, something to guide viewers through the myriad stories and themes that are uncovered and explored—not to mention the more emotionally complex material that arises as a result.

Without revealing too much of the journey, Origin Story covers themes such as immigration, adoption, the Laotian Civil War, and transgenerational trauma. Some of the stories here could support feature films of their own, particularly the harrowing story of survival that Vilaysack discovers about her biological parents, swimming across the Mekong River to escape the Communists in Laos and reach the beaches of Thailand. Many of these episodes are visualized with simple animations and drawings, but these modest depictions only amplify the power of these stories in the mind, leaving many of the details to the audience’s imagination. The film goes to some dark places, but Vilaysack’s gift for humor, as well as that of her family (she seems to get it from her mother), never lets the film slip away into despair. For all of the painful memories that come bubbling to the surface, there are just as many laughs, and Vilaysack points the film in the direction of a guarded but well-earned sense of hope.

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Kulap Vilaysack in Origin Story.

The journey can still be difficult to watch at times. Even as I write this review, I still find myself reeling from some of the emotional fallout. Much of the film takes place in Laos, of course, as Vilaysack travels to meet her biological father and also reconnect with her cultural heritage. There is a genuine tension to many of these scenes, as Vilaysack has no idea what to expect; this leg of the journey is suffused with conflicting emotions. But it’s also indicative of the journey as a whole. Vilaysack sets out looking for answers, knowing she many never find them, or not find the answers she wants. In this way, Origin Story is about the invariable disappointments in life, the sometimes untraversable gulf between our desires and reality. And there are some moments here that cut deep.

Origin Story, as its title suggests, closes a chapter in Kulap Vilaysack’s life, but it’s only the opening chapter. Thinking back on the film, the scenes I recall most strongly are the ones in which Vilaysack is surrounded by the family she knows and loves, sitting on the couch with her sisters while digging up some raw emotions with her mother, or reminiscing about the sponsor family that still supports her to this day. The unknown details she uncovers about her own past and the role her sponsor family played are some of the most heartwarming. There’s a foundation here, a sense of family and belonging that Vilaysack strengthens through her journey, that gives her the tools she needs to build the next chapter in her life. The film’s title also dovetails nicely with the fact of Vilaysack being the inspiration for the DC Comics character, Katharsis. This is a superhero origin story, a real story about a real person, and it’s one of the most inspiring stories I’ve seen at the movies this year.

★★

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