Reangsei Phos grew up with onions in a corner in every room in his house.
That was his mom’s doing, as was splashing water throughout the home and arranging furniture a certain way, to ward off bad energy, Phos says.
It wasn’t until he was older did he realize these superstitions were often rooted in myths and were uncommon outside of East Asian cultures.
“Looking back to those memories, I remember the difficulties of navigating my mom being really superstitious,” Phos says.
“So, what if I did a film about that?”
In 2020, Phos says he dropped out of film school at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) to create his first short thriller film, Talisman. It follows a superstitious Chinese family settling into a new home that their son Yi believes is haunted, but is told is protected by similar superstitions that Phos grew up with.
“I haven’t really seen this story before, especially within East Asia. This is one story that I want to tell,” said Phos.
It premiered this spring and was given an audience’s choice 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 filmmaking journey has over 100 millions views.
Phos hopes his success continues and helps him tell more stories starring Asian characters on the big screen.
“I’m really big on Asian representation, and bringing the spotlight to us and representing us in a way that feels truthful,” says Phos.
‘There wasn’t really a backup plan’
Since filming started 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, with support of about $10,000 through an Indiegogo campaign, there was a lot still at stake. NFFTY was their only shot at recognition, as it was the sole festival to accept their film from about 15 other festivals they approached, Phos says.
“I took a huge risk dropping out of school… if it didn’t pay off, there wasn’t really a backup plan,” said Phos.
While it was recognized at the festival and picked up by film platform ALTER on YouTube shortly after, it wasn’t enough. People weren’t flocking to the film like he thought they would, he said.
That’s why he turned to TikTok to broaden his reach. There, he showed behind-the-scenes clips of Talisman and other updates for future movies. Today, his most viral video looking for auditions for his next movie sits at over 800,000 likes.
“Had we not won at the festival, got picked up by ALTER and gone viral on TikTok, I don’t think my parents or I would have found this viable,” he says.
Angela Wang, Phos’ producer for Talisman, says while the progress they’ve achieved so far is exciting, there’s more work to be done.
“I think there is still a long way to go in terms of Asian representation,” said Wang.
Wang, a fourth-year film student at TMU, met Phos during film school where she recalls being one of the only Asian people in their program. She says a big part of why she entered the industry is to help other Asians in North America get represented in media.
“This is just the beginning,” said Wang.
While Wang finishes school, Phos says he’s currently wrapping up his second film in Toronto. By the time’s he’s 25, he hopes to have a large feature film under his belt.
“Everything right now is leading up to that,” said Phos.