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SHORT FILM CORNER: “Joy Joy Nails”

Film premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Festival
Directed by Joey Ally

In “Joy joy nails” unusual close-ups and adept cinematography combine the claustrophobic feelings of a confined workplace with the eerie lighting from the city’s streets, its buses and subways. “Joy Joy Nails,” directed by New Yorker Joey Ally, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a Queens nail salon from the viewpoint of its employees, most of whom are Korean. Subtitles (in the foreign film tradition) help convey what they’re thinking while snipping cuticles and filing fingertips. Central to the film is the territorial jealousy, and bullying, by front-house manager Sarah (Kahyun Kim) of the new Chinese immigrant manicurist Mia (Yi Liu), the latter who appears to have eyes for the owner’s son. The viewer is privy to footage from the shop’s surveillance cameras, for voyeuristic frissons. The film’s dramatic turns, the comedic situations and the emotional ending will make you forever wonder about the people doing your next pedicure.

During a brief chat together at the Tribeca Festival last month Ally told me of her own experiences visiting salons in her native New York. “The workers massage and hold your hands, which gives the feeling of real human contact.” No doubt that these moments struck a chord with the writer/director who, through her film, allows us to see these people as human beings, not nameless, faceless automatons armed with nail files.

The film’s cutaways, revealing the characters’ indentured existence, compel, they’re humanizing. Ally clearly did her homework, her knowledge of the matter at hand is spot on. She included a cultural expert to help with translations. As Ally explained, “it was important to do this film in its original languages because it should be watched as an authentic representation, not [as] a falsification.” She manages to coax a convincing plea against bullying and for a liberal immigration and human rights stance.

Joey Ally

Filmmaker Joey Ally

When asked what she thought of the title “female director” as opposed to just “director” Ally was happy to accept the gender distinction, claiming “Sometimes you have to be a cause before you can make change.”

Ally’s previous credits include the short films “Minimum Wage” which was screened at the Palm Springs International ShortFest in 2015 and “Partners,” a film that got screened at Sundance in 2016. Her debut at the recent Tribeca Festival this year gives her the triple crown of festivals, in consecutive order. She’s also directing for the Women in Film’s digital series Flip the Script.

Ally, who is now based in Los Angeles, has lots of future projects lined up. “I want to tell stories about protagonists that we don’t usually see. I intend to make more films that cross lines, that are intersectional.”

Rudy Cecera is a contributor to Screen Comment and covers the Tribeca Film Festival.