In short, experimental portraits of Asian American immigrant families, including his own, the mixed American Japanese filmmaker Mackie Mallison features conversations with older relatives conducted by their younger kin. In It Smells Like Springtime (2022), the subject is Chinese American jeweler Ada Chen—how her relationship to her parents and her work intertwine with rampant stereotypes she faces in the United States. With Live From the Clouds (2023), the focus is on the filmmaker’s Texas-based extended family and the long distance that separates them from their relatives in Japan. Incorporating home movies, animations, voiceovers and superimpositions, Mallison’s nonfiction work brings family memories to the forefront.
Raised in the Pacific Northwest by a single mother who worked in a hair salon, Mallison didn’t initially envision a career in moving images. “My mom was the age I am now when she had me,” Mackie reflects. “She had stacks of CDs around our apartment, and there were certain ones I’d come back to, like Beck’s Midnite Vultures. I still dream about the colors of that album cover, the bright greens and bright purples. As a kid, before I could really say words, I’d just wave the CD around and shout ‘Beck! Beck!’ and my mom would put it on, and we’d dance around the apartment. We didn’t have much; we just had each other.” Music’s relationship to the moving image was made clear once Mallison and his mother watched the video for the Beastie Boys’s “Intergalactic,” which involved a giant robot rummaging through Tokyo, imagery Mallison cites as having a physical effect on him that he wants his own work to replicate.
If much of Mallison’s work involves themes of familial connections, reunions with many in his family were incredibly rare. Both parents were in Oregon where he was raised, but Mallison’s grandmother and aunts lived in Texas. An intense fear of flying prevented them from seeing him and other relatives; Live From the Clouds digs into the chasm that distance has made. Mallison recalls times when he and his father, a wine salesman, would attempt to obtain standby tickets to meet them halfway. “We’d wait for flights to meet [them] somewhere around Colorado,” Mallison recalls, “only to be told that the flight was full and that we’d have to turn around and go home. Once I turned 20, I was able to afford my own ticket and went to see them.”
Arriving in New York to attend Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (where he would receive a BFA in film), Mallison quickly got his film viewing up to speed by watching the features of Hirokazu Kore-eda, the shorts of Lynne Ramsay and the experimental films of Jodie Mack and Jonas Mekas, whose five-hour As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty he cites as a particularly strong influence. In 2018, Mallison received an Adobe Creativity Scholarship and began experimenting with Super 16mm, eventually taking a gap year to make ends meet by working late nights at Williamsburg’s Kellogg’s Diner and hoping the hourly wage would cover the development of his reels. “I just needed to figure things out,” Mallison says, “but figuring things out is something I learned from watching my dad at a young age. He’s been homeless at points in his life, but he’s always figured a way out of things. I remember that when I’m on set.”
It Smells Like Springtime premiered at last year’s New York Film Festival, and Live From the Clouds (which he plans to expand into a feature) is premiering at this year’s edition, but Mallison is also eager to dabble in fiction filmmaking. He’ll soon be seeking funding for a narrative feature loosely based on a road trip he took with his father, and his narrative short, Lunchbox, recently wrapped production and is headed for a festival run in 2024. Whatever form his next story takes, Mallison is confident he will, as he says, figure things out. “If it wants to be more narrative, it’s going to be more narrative,” Mallison says, “and I never want it to be the same thing [I’ve done] before.”—Erik Luers/Image: Finn Blue