How “Quiz Lady” uses comedy to illustrate immigrant trauma

The new Hulu comedy starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh is generating a lot of conversation for its riotous humor, but the film is also resonating for a deeper reason.

“Quiz Lady,” which hit theaters Friday, uses its comedy to illustrate complicated, often uncomfortable dynamics in immigrant families, film experts say. From an absent mother who escapes to Macau on a gambling spree to reunited, estranged siblings whose chaotic dynamics reveal a deeper connection, the film offers Asian Americans and people from immigrant communities a rare opportunity to laugh at their traumas.

“Because we have a really ‘big’ comedy, you can actually name the trauma a little more. It’s so terrible that you can laugh at it and take the power away from the trauma,” Nancy Wang Yuen, author of the 2016 book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” told NBC News.

Awkwafina as Anne Yum in "Quiz Lady."
Awkwafina as Anne Yum in Quiz Lady.20th Century Studio / HULU

In the film, Anne Yum, a socially concerned, game show-obsessed millennial played by Awkwafina, and her untamed, dysfunctional sister Jenny, played by Oh, are tasked with paying off their mother’s gambling debts. The stakes are especially high after Anne’s dog Linguini is kidnapped and held for ransom, prompting the sisters to travel across the country to lure Anne onto her favorite quiz show, “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” They hope that by winning they can earn the money to get Anne’s dog back.

But behind the film’s storylines lie some very real aspects of the immigrant experience. An early scene evokes a young Anne glued to the television watching the game show. As Anne’s eyes remain on host Terry McTeer, an argument breaks out between her parents upstairs and her father can be heard demanding a divorce before storming out. Other scenes briefly illustrate the consequences of her mother’s gambling addiction.

Experts say the family tensions are not unlike those that immigrant families often struggle with because of the intense pressure to make it in America. And Yuen noted that the characters’ wildly contrasting personalities were representative responses to these tensions: Anne withdrew from the world and Jenny sought adventure and escape.

Sandra Oh as Jenny Yum in "Quiz Lady."
Sandra Oh as Jenny Yum in Quiz Lady. 20th Century Studio / HULU

“It focuses on the story of children of immigrants who had to learn to survive without the careful care and attention of immigrant parents. Which is probably more true to reality than the tiger parents,” Yuen said. “Immigrants are literally constantly working to put food on the table to pay rent. It’s not like they have the ability to actually handle their children. Children are pretty much left alone most of the time.”

Even Anne’s dutiful daily viewing of “Can’t Stop The Quiz” reflects a comfort that many immigrant families find in game shows, Yuen said. In one scene, when Anne makes it to the game show, she even mispronounces and calls Terry “Dad.”

Sandra Oh as Jenny Yum and Awkwafina as Anne Yum in "Quiz Lady."
Sandra Oh as Jenny Yum and Awkwafina as Anne Yum in Quiz Lady.Michele K Short / HULU

“The shows were more stable than my family. We can count on these shows happening every night,” Yuen said, recalling her own upbringing. “She never missed it. She calls him “Papa” because he was there, probably more often than her own father. … I definitely feel like the shows I watched as a kid are looking out for me.”

Although tempers flare between Anne and Jenny due to their opposing natures, the two come together on the game show over a game of charades, showing that they ultimately know each other best, Ana-Christina Ramon, director of UCLA’s Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, said .

“They’re opposites, but they really understand everything they went through as kids,” Ramon said.

Ramon said the film’s humor was significant. The experiences of marginalized communities are too often reduced to stories of despair and violence or “trauma porn.”

“This type of film is great because it has the opportunity to bring in all the elements — you persevere, you overcome, maybe you have those negative experiences,” Ramon said. “To really move forward in the world, you have to take certain things lightly.”

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