Actor-writer-comedian Kulap Vilaysack’s directorial debut, Origin Story, is an intensely personal foray into her childhood, wielding questions about family, truth and the reliability of memory. An origin story for a comic book hero is most often a tragedy, and Vilaysack fashions her feature-length film, a documentary of her journey from Los Angeles to Laos — and to self-discovery and redemption — in this same vein.
The opening is an animated sequence of drawings of young Kulap caught in a fight between her parents, discovering that her father isn’t her father and ending with a page from a DC Comics book featuring Laotian superhero Katharsis, who is named after Vilaysack. Origin Story has its own cast of rogues, including the gambling mother, Bouaphet, who emotionally blackmails her daughter to help her with her rent (“Fine, you don’t help your MOM! I dead to you!”), and the mystery biological father, Saky, who “was never going to be a white knight” and who may or may not have wanted anything to do with his daughter.
In an interview with L.A. Weekly, Vilaysack said point-blank that her parents “are hustlers” but explained that they had to be in order to survive the Secret War in Laos, which they did by crossing the Mekong River into Thailand during the Vietnam War. Her mom wounded her emotionally again and again, in battles fought throughout childhood into adulthood, and her dad did too, from that space of not knowing himself or his motivations, and then later discovering who he really was. “Hurt people continue to hurt other people,” Vilaysack said. "I carried this feeling of being abandoned, that I was not enough. Making the documentary was my way to break this cycle of trauma."
Vilaysack, whose list of credits includes appearances on Bob’s Burgers, The Office and Parks and Recreation, is the co-host of podcast Who Charted; she also was the creator and showrunner for Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ and co-founder of Garage Comedy, an alternative comedy variety show in Silver Lake. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, comedian-writer-producer Scott Aukerman, known for Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis and his Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast.
Origin Story includes shots of Vilaysack speaking with Aukerman and friends Sarah Silverman, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael and Howard Kremer. Some of that feels like a distraction from the authenticity of her journey, whose power lies in voices of her family, but it also grounds her in her new life in Los Angeles.
Comic book writer Gail Simone created the character Katharsis, a Laotian vigilante superhero based on Vilaysack, for DC Comics. The character debuted in Batgirl #10 in 2012. “She’s a badass,” Vilaysack said. When she found out about Katharsis, “I just about lost my mind. ... Here is another Kulap Vilaysack; this name that’s so hard to pronounce is in the DC universe.”
An avid and lifelong comic book reader, Vilaysack said she identifies with Batman, who is flawed and makes mistakes despite his superpowers. Perhaps she sees herself in the same way, trying to create a record of her family’s history, however messy, and making mistakes, because the process of documentary filmmaking was new to her. She explained that she wished she had done certain things differently, such as pushing her dad in the critical moment he apologized, because it was vague and she didn’t quite understand what it meant.
The camera itself is visible during this emotional peak, at times pulling the eye away. “I doubted myself and I needed a record. The camera wouldn’t lie. Of course, I crafted my story, but the raw footage is unbiased," Vilaysack said.
Just as Batman has Alfred, his valet at Wayne Manor, who raises the young orphan and is ever by his side — calm, upright and unflinching — Kulap has Aunt Julie and Uncle Ron, the generous host family who took in her and her mom when they emigrated to America, and who raised her when her mom vanished from her life for three years. They are her foundation, Vilaysack explained, the ones who taught her about unconditional love.
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If this story is a search for Vilaysack's biological dad, it is also about the dads who raised her: in the very early years, Uncle Ron, “strong, family-oriented, firm and fair,” and the dad she grew up with, Peng, “a simple man” with a love for gardening and an “interest in learning about history and the world.” Saky, her biological dad, the one who comes late to her life, is like her in startling ways, not only physically but in their need to laugh and joke. “I’m a hustler in my own way,” she admitted.
After returning from filming and connecting with family in Laos about four years ago, Vilaysack realized that many faces in Hollywood did not look like hers. She started the nonprofit Laos Angeles, whose mission is to advocate and advance the Lao-American community in the entertainment and media landscape. To that end, Origin Story will be premiering today and tomorrow at the prestigious Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas, created by Geena Davis in 2015 to champion inclusion in media, and on the West Coast at the Center for Asian American Media Festival (CAAMFest) in San Francisco May 13 and 19. Vilaysack was just named one of 26 "A to Z" Asian Americans to watch by NBC Asian America for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Vilaysack said she fears her story might cause others to “want to let [their own] sleeping dogs lie,” rather than find out where they came from. She believes in digging deep, so that the past no longer drags you down. In the end, slaying demons is about realizing that there are no “cold hard facts” and seeing those who have hurt you with compassion. She hopes that her film has opened a way forward with her family and that her mom can still change her own life.
“I’m an unreliable narrator," Vilaysack said. “My mom is an unreliable narrator with a fluid relationship with truth. My dad is an unreliable narrator. … The truth is somewhere in between.” In her Origin Story, Vilaysack forgives her parents and, as important, learns to trust herself. That in itself is a heroic act.