Isabel Sandoval’s new short film “Shangri-La” was released this week, but the project — which she wrote, directed, and stars in — wasn’t even on her radar until three months ago.
The artful film is the latest installment in the “Miu Miu Women’s Tales” series, and Sandoval got the call from the Italian fashion house in mid-November asking if she was interested in participating. It’s a prestigious club to join: past directors have included Ava DuVernay, Agnès Varda, Lynne Ramsay and Miranda July.
“I work best under pressure and with that in mind, I took on the challenge,” says the director, who shot the film in two days in Los Angeles in mid-December, edited it in January and delivered the film to Miu Miu at the end of that month.
Sandoval approached the story with filming restrictions in mind — no more than two characters, everything was shot indoors on a contained set — but she wasn’t interested in penning a narrative that was set during a lockdown or related directly to the pandemic. Instead, she took a different approach to isolation, finding inspiration from a scene in James Gray’s 2014 film “The Immigrant” in which Marion Cotillard’s character, a Polish immigrant, goes to church confession.
“Being inside the confessional box, we see contours and details of the confessional fade into black. It felt like the rest of the world fell away and we’re just focusing on Marion Cotillard’s face,” says Sandoval. “The tone of the scene becomes a lot more intimate and confessional, and encapsulates the mood and the tone that I initially wanted to channel for the premise of ‘Shangri-La.’”
Sandoval was interested in showing a character not often seen in screen depictions of confession. In the film, Sandoval stars as a second generation Filipina farmhand; her confession is a poetic description of her lover, a white American man, which extends into imagined alternate realities. The film is set in California during the Great Depression, and opens with a bit of historical context: “From 1850 to 1948, California’s anti-miscegenation statute banned interracial marriage.”
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to showcase a different subjectivity or perspective,” adds Sandoval of her premise, which is optimistic despite the circumstances. “As a Filipina immigrant myself, that kind of persona interested me very much.”
She had also recently finished the script for her next feature film, “Tropical Gothic,” which is set in the 16th century in the Philippines. “It’s an allegory about colonialism,” she says. “I wanted to revisit the history of immigration by Filipinos to the United States, and show that as early as over 100 years ago Filipinos had been immigrating to the United States after the U.S. occupied our country. The subject matter just strangely enough coincided — and poignantly coincided — with these attacks in the film, on the Asian American community in the U.S. It made it feel more urgent, and more that this is the story I should be telling for a short film like ‘Shangri-La.’”
Miu Miu’s designs also factored into the storyline, although Sandoval took an oblique approach to her use of fashion in the film.
“I don’t consider myself that much of a fashionista; I’ve always regarded fashion at an arm’s length. Sometimes I feel like it can be frivolous or self-indulgent, which is why I wanted to rethink the process in which I showed the Miu Miu looks, to give it a different emotional feel besides glorifying fashion or being lavish,” says Sandoval, who looked at the Miu Miu collection look book for inspiration. “I thought it would be perfect if the character that I play imagined herself in these alternate empowered characters wearing the Miu Miu outfits,” she adds. “It should be an outward manifestation of her inner radiance and vibrancy and realization of self worth.”
The film costars her friend and fellow director Matthew Fifer. Sandoval and Fifer met at the Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca All Access program in April 2019, when both were in postproduction for their recent respective movies; Sandoval with “Lingua Franca,” and Fifer with “Cicada,” which he wrote, codirected and stars in as a gay man in an interracial relationship.
Sandoval premiered “Lingua Franca” at the Venice Film Festival, making her the first trans woman of color to screen a film in competition at the prestigious festival. The film, which she also wrote, directed and stars in, is about an undocumented Filipina trans woman in New York who falls in love with the Russian grandson of the elderly woman she’s been hired to care for. The movie was released last summer on Netflix.
“[With ‘Lingua Franca’] I wanted to make a film that showcased my voice as a filmmaker: someone who makes sensual and lyrical, delicate films, and I want to push that even further in ‘Shangri-La.’ To have it feel rapturous and be sensuous. And I’m so happy the work comes across that way to the people watching,” she says.
Sandoval, who’s been staying in Raleigh, N.C., since the start of the pandemic, recently signed with CAA, which is helping with financing for “Tropical Gothic.” She hopes to shoot the film — which she might also star in; she’s undecided — in the Philippines later this fall.
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