Director and screenwriter Jean Shim started writing the script for A Great Divide while she was living in Jackson, Wyoming at the start of the pandemic. It was a way for her to reflect on and process the reports of discrimination and violence against Asian-Americans that had begun erupting across the country.
Starring Ken Jeong in a rare dramatic role alongside Jae Suh Park, Emerson Min and Miya Cech, A Great Divide follows a family who moves to a Wyoming town and experiences racism and xenophobia from the locals, prompting them to work through family trauma and forge unexpected friendships.
A Great Divide was the very first screening that played on Friday during the opening day of the inaugural Jackson Hole International Film Festival in Jackson, Wyoming. Shim, Cech, and producer and co-writer Jeff Yang gave a Q&A following the screening.
Jean Shim and Jeff Yang on Making A Great Divide
“I was here in Jackson during the time of COVID and afterwards, and I just couldn’t believe this was happening. I literally, in my soul, said, ‘I’m 57 years old now, and I never thought that my children would see this.’ So it really spurred me to write it,” Shim told the crowd.
She decided to shoot A Great Divide in Jackson, where she lives part time, because of the uniqueness of the land and its wildlife, which play a huge role in the film.
As Shim was writing the script and drawing on experiences “that I felt and other Asians have felt,” she says, “I was looking out into the land. I really felt the land was looking at me saying, ‘Look at what you guys are doing.’ I mean, this is really it. That’s what spoke to me.”
The film features breathtaking aerial footage of the valley of Jackson Hole and the Teton mountains that loom around it, as well as wildlife like snakes, moose, and bison.
“This is both a love letter to Wyoming, but also an understanding that the middle of America is a complicated place,” Yang said.
One of the locations used in the film perfectly illustrates that point. It’s a real restaurant called Yankee Doodle’s Cafe in the nearby town of Alpine, Wyoming, just 40 minutes from Jackson right beside the Idaho border.
“When we walked in there, we were like, Oh, my gosh, we’re in another dimension. This is like a theme park. Like, it’s a theme park dedicated to a certain kind of mentality,” Yang said.
The cafe is full of patriotic, heavily-American memorabilia — for example, a picture of a french fry box full of bullets labeled “freedom fries.”
“We were a little concerned. Like, can we actually shoot here? Will the owner of this thing allow us to? Because obviously, there are lots of anti-immigrant things in there, and lots of things like ‘Foreigners stay out,'” Yang said.
But when the filmmakers met the owner of the restaurant, they were pleasantly surprised to find that he was an immigrant, too.
“The owner is actually a Hispanic gentleman who purchased it from the original owner, and because it was making a bunch of money… he decided to buy it and keep it exactly the same,” Yang said with a laugh.
“We were just a little stunned in some ways. But it kind of shows how generationally, things change, and how time is changing this place,” he added. “If you see anything in this, it’s that we believe that whatever residual issues came from prior generations, that next generation is the hope.”
A Great Divide was written by Jeff Yang, Jean Shim, and Martina Nagel. It was produced by Shim, Jeff Yang, and Brian Yang. Executive producers include David Lee, Wei Zhang, Takashi Cheng, Julia Gouw, Toni Wang, Sung Kang, Ken Jeong, Elisabeth CDeB Segel, and Philip Kim. Other cast members include MeeWha Alana Lee, West Mulholland, Seamus Dever, Jamie McShane, Marshall Allman, Brooke Markham, Greg Winter, Abbie Cobb and Leland Alexander.
Main Image: Ken Jeong, Jae Suh Park, and Emerson Min in A Great Divide