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He moved in with his grandmas during COVID. Now, they're all going to the Oscars

Updated February 23, 2024 at 9:05 AM ET

Three years ago, during the height of COVID, 29-year-old filmmaker Sean Wang moved from New York back to California to live with his family, including his paternal grandmother, his Nai Nai, who's 86, and his maternal grandmother, his Wài Pó, who's 96.

"They live together. They sleep in the same bed. They're kind of like best friends and roommates and soulmates in a way," Wang says. "They really are the most pure form of joy in my life. I love them so much."

He wanted to preserve their unexpected time together, so he starting filming them. The result is a charming 17-minute documentary that is now nominated for an Oscar.

Nai Nai & Wài Pó captures the grandmothers' everyday lives in Fremont, Calif., as they wake up, read the newspaper, exercise, chop fruit and even mischievously arm wrestle. They sing, dance, reminisce — and joke about farting.

"I wanted to show people how amazing and beautiful and complex people like my grandmothers are," says Wang, who adds he was living with them and experiencing their joy at the same time there were a lot of anti-Asian hate crimes around the country. "Especially in the Bay Area where I'm from," he said, "seeing people like my grandmothers, elderly people in our community being attacked; It was just this extreme juxtaposition of seeing that in the news on my computer and then walking into the same room as them and then lighting me up with a smile."

Wang's grandmothers played along; the documentary is both tender and funny.

"I hope that people who watch this film will really respect the elderly and their lives," his Nai Nai, Yi Yan Fuei, told NPR in Mandarin (Wang's sister, Jennifer Lee, interpreted for the grandmothers).

His Wài Pó, Chang Li Hua added, "I hope all the older generation people in the world see this movie and just see even in our twilight years, our later years of life, that we can still find joy."

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlyYimV6Qqw"><em>Nai Nai & Wài Pó</em></a><em> </em>is both tender and funny.<em> </em>
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Disney+
Nai Nai & Wài Pó is both tender and funny.

A filmmaker focused on family

This isn't the only time Wang enlistedfamily for his filmmaking projects. For his first feature film, Dìdi, Wang asked Fuei to play the role of the strong-willed grandma. His mother, Christina Lee, inspired the onscreen mother who dreams of being a painter. She was also his location manager and script reader and is listed in the credits as associate producer. So was his sister, Jennifer, who is also fictionalized in Dìdi.

The semi-autobiographical story is set in the late 2000s. The main character Chris, played by Isaac Wang (no relation) fights with his sister, is mean to his mom, and has a crush on a girl; he chats on Myspace and searches online for things like "how to kiss." He also starts videotaping his friends as they skateboard, something Wang himself used to do.

In fact, Wang says he was inspired by filmmaker Spike Jonze, who also started out making skateboarding videos. Wang says he wanted to make his own coming-of-age movie.

"I remember being really inspired when Mid90s and Eighth Grade came out, because I loved both of those movies," he said. "Movies like The 400 Blows, Stand by Me, Water Lilies, Ratcatcher, you know, the canon of movies about adolescence: ... I can't name the movie poster that has a 13-year-old Asian American kid looking back at me."

At theSundance Film Festival this year, Dìdi won the dramatic audience award and an award for best ensemble cast. A few weeks later, it was acquired by Focus Features.

"He has a unique voice," says Michelle Satter, founding senior director of the Artist Programs Sundance Institute, which has helped nurture Wang's filmmaking. "I think he's stylistically exciting. His work is both funny and fresh and it has an incredible energy to it."

'I'm their plus one'

A few days after Dìdi premiered, Wang flew back to California to be with his grandmas as they watched Nai Nai & Wài Pó get nominated in the short documentary Oscar category. He says the whole experience is still so surreal; now he and his grandmothers are getting ready for the Oscars ceremony.

"They're taking me at this point, like I'm their plus one," he half jokes.

Wang's Nai Nai and Wài Pó say they're over the moon.

"I'm happy beyond belief, I'm excited, I'm thankful to everyone, especially for their kindness to my grandson," says Hua.

And Fuei says "it feels like old grandmas are now turning into princesses. I couldn't have imagined this, so I'm really excited, really happy."

Wang says they'll be stunning on the red carpet.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Filmmaker Sean Wang, left, and his grandmothers Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei, and producer Sam Davis pictured at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills on February 12.
Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Filmmaker Sean Wang, left, and his grandmothers Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei, and producer Sam Davis pictured at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills on February 12.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.