Native son explores emotion through film
By Jessica Laskey
The room is claustrophobic. You can almost smell the tang of sweat and adrenaline. A face appears onscreen, uncomfortably close, marred by a wound. The camera reels as punches are thrown. You don’t know whether to look away or watch through your fingers.
Spencer Tsang was able to capture this intense scene on film because he lived it. He and his friends would meet behind a Taco Bell near John F. Kennedy High School to fight. It wasn’t until Tsang was in college and won a grant to make “Fight Night,” a short film based on this time in his life, that he realized he could make a living exploring his own experiences through art.
“I used to resist my artistic side,” says Tsang, a Sacramento native whose parents emigrated from China. “Being a minority Chinese American, arts are not encouraged. I grew up in a very masculine environment and tried to suppress my artistic side. I was called names. People would say, ‘You think you’re so deep, you think you’re better than us,’ to try to cut down your ego. I was just trying to figure myself out.”
Art became Tsang’s escape. He drew comic books. He daydreamed in class, making up episodes of Power Rangers. He went to the movies so often he’s pretty sure he ran subscription ticket service MoviePass out of business.
By high school, Tsang discovered his love for writing, which “literally saved my life.” During a suicidal episode senior year, he wrote a poem to his late godfather, who had died by suicide.
Tsang entered University of San Francisco as a business major, determined to leave art—and Sacramento—behind. But art followed him. Campus MovieFest, the world’s largest student film festival, came to USF his freshman year. Tsang and a friend submitted a short film that was chosen for screening out of 45 entries. Tsang thought, if I can make a short film, what else can I do?
COVID intervened and Tsang moved back to Sacramento. As his family’s restaurant struggled, Tsang wondered why no one was making ads for them, similar to larger companies. He and some college friends launched GrapePear, a creative marketing company, to tell small business stories.
An ad Tsang wrote and directed for San Francisco burger joint Uncle Boy’s was viewed thousands of times and picked up by local media. The restaurant’s sales grew 40 percent.
“It was a life-changing moment,” Tsang says. “I had used film to positively impact someone’s life. That was truly what I wanted to do.”
Inspired, Tsang decided to try Los Angeles. By the end of 2020, he landed an internship, found a living situation and moved to LA. He worked on film sets, met amazing people and took classes at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting to learn the actor’s art.
When he saw an ad for the Allstate Foundation Film Festival fellowship offering a $15,000 grant, Tsang thought it was a scam—but applied anyway. He submitted a script based on a short story he’d written in high school about toxic masculinity, friendship and empathy among people of color. He animated the first three scenes to show the interview panel. He impressed them so much they asked no questions and gave him the grant.
Months of hard work followed. He developed the script, did pre-production, secured permits, bought insurance, auditioned, rehearsed and eventually filmed “Fight Night.” The nine-minute movie will be shown at high schools nationwide to engage teenagers in conversations about positive relationships.
“The fellowship turned my life upside down. I realized this doesn’t have to just be a hobby, it can be a job,” says Tsang, who’s finishing his senior year at USF while working three jobs—all in the film industry. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I have a long road ahead of me, but I’m dedicated to the journey.”
To view “Fight Night,” visit joinonelove.org/vote. For more information, visit spencertsang.com.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.com.