There is a giant box on the living room floor, and a young, attractive, white couple quiver with anticipation as they sit before it. They have been looking to spice up their sex lives, and the box contains their latest solution: a lifelike Asian sex robot, complete with a black corset and spiky black heels.
This is the premise for “Cake,” a short film by New York-based director Anne Hu that is having its local premiere at the D.C. Asian Pacific American Film Festival on Sunday. What makes “Cake” unique — and what elevates its premise into a sharp critique of typical Asian representation in popular culture — is that Hu herself plays the sex robot.
It is not unusual for directors to put themselves in their own films. Alfred Hitchcock became famous for his little cameos, while aging actor-directors such as Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson would typically play the heroic lead role. But by playing the robot and literally objectifying herself, Hu is more vulnerable than the typical filmmaker.
In a recent interview, Hu explains the casting choice was a statement of purpose: “I had always intended to cast myself originally. Then I got scared, backed out, and held auditions for the role. But it never felt right.”
Hu’s performance is silent, and yet her face — dispassionate and hostile — is a comic response to the couple, who speak about their sex lives with an exaggerated, sunny disposition. She adds that casting herself “made me feel like the statements I wanted to make were louder, more in-your-face.”
Hu first got the idea for “Cake” while she was a student at Ohio State University, earning her degree in marketing and art. “OSU didn’t have a film program, so I took as much of their film/video classes as I could,” she says. After working in an advertising agency and moving to New York, she eventually landed a job in 2016 as a senior producer-editor for HBO, where she edits promotional trailers for shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Vice Principals.” Hu left the idea for “Cake” alone for years — she originally conceived it a feature-length film — only to return to it as a short in 2015. At under 10 minutes, the film nonetheless took months to write, with a lengthy postproduction process after an intense two-day shooting schedule.
“Cake” is ultimately a comedy, one where Hu’s character serves as a mirror for the audience. Throughout the film, we see one deadpan sight gag after another. At first, we do not see the robot’s face: Hu introduces the character with a close-up of her midsection. She is a consumer product, anonymous and blank. Later, with an unmistakable mix of apathy and disgust, Hu stares directly into the camera. It is a look that says, “Yes, I know what you must think of me, and I do not find it the least bit fascinating.”
Through objectification, “Cake” forces its audience to ask what it means when Asian women are endlessly fetishized. Most directors use their camera to expand their vision, inviting multiple meanings. Hu does the opposite, and her sullen eyes imbue “Cake” with the red-hot focus of a laser.
At age 30, Hu has already made several short films across animation, documentary and traditional narrative. And she is keenly aware of the diversity problem on both sides of the camera. “I think change is slow, especially for the big Hollywood companies, because they’re driven by profits and not necessarily by the art,” she says. “But I would argue that’s changing, considering all the backlash they’re seeing at the box office.”
She points to the recent box-office bomb “Ghost in the Shell,” a film plagued by controversy since its star, Scarlett Johansson, played a humanoid character of Asian descent. “I have to personally fight the ‘submissive Asian woman’ stereotype. [People in the industry] have used that stereotype to my face.” One of the rich ironies of “Cake” is that, despite all the dominatrix gear, Hu’s character is subservient to the wills of horny white people — not that she is too keen about it.
After her film tours the film festival circuit, Hu plans to work on her feature-length debut. It’s a revenge horror film about a daughter in an Asian American family. When her stepmother decides to sell the family home, her long-deceased biological mother comes back from the dead. Like the recent horror smash “Get Out,” the film has the potential to dismantle easy racial stereotypes — positive and negative — by using a familiar genre framework. The structure and payoff of “Cake” is similar to the sketch-comedy show where Jordan Peele, writer and director of “Get Out,” cut his teeth. Based on the strength of her short film, Hu just might become the latest cinematic force to be reckoned with.
The D.C. Asian Pacific American Film Festival runs through Sunday at Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. “Cake” is part of the sold-out “Left to My Own Devices” short-film showcase at 4 p.m. Sunday. www.apafilm.org.