‘We wanted to make a movie first and foremost for the girls’: in TOFU, director Gbenga Komolafe looks beyond cliches and trauma narratives
Although trans representation on screen has improved in recent years, the range of stories told can often feel limiting, favouring trauma narratives over emotionally expansive portrayals. In his effort to offer an alternative vision, director Gbenga Komolafe set out to create a story that would centre on the truth of trans life, but provide a sense of hope and optimism, without dulling the edges of an often fraught experience. The result was TOFU, a funny and touching short film that explores the radical importance of gender-affirming care, while spotlighting the queer familial bonds often absent in modern storytelling.
The film’s plot focuses on Nikki, a young transgender woman played by Aus Wang, who’s looking for cash to fund her breast augmentation. After an unsuccessful attempt to secure a bag from her moronic sugar daddy (“You’re perfectly sized, petite breasts are what makes you special”), Nikki has no choice but to take employment at her mother’s struggling tofu restaurant, fortuitously creating a viral internet craze in the process.
In a conversation over email, Komolafe expressed that he and the film’s screenwriter, Tee Jaehyung Park, wanted to “tell a story where [Nikki] gets everything she wants”, as both were tired of narratives using trauma as a means to build empathy, when “comedy is often an even more effective tool”.
This is evident two-thirds of the way through the film, when Nikki’s typically stern mother, played by Miju Kim Pascal, comforts her sleeping daughter, stroking Nikki’s hair while softly declaring her love for her. In a should-be tender moment between the two women, Nikki suddenly wakes from her pseudo-slumber, unable to contain her laughter at Mama Kim’s newfound affection. “No! That’s the cutest thing you’ve ever said to me”, Nikki shouts after her mother as she grouchily exits the room. Nikki’s cutting reaction slices the soupiness in such an authentic way, sidestepping the generic sentimentality we often see in similar moments on screen. In that moment, most of us would laugh – and it’s the levity of the situation that humanises both characters, not some unreachable, abstract notion of a “shared trauma”.
Although the film is only 14 minutes long, Komolafe also manages to squeeze in some prescient commentary on social media, which is used as a central plot device throughout. In TOFU, socials are not only a tool of escapism, but a pervasive force through which all of the characters experience their lives. According to Komolafe, this was at first unintentional, sharing that, “we didn’t even realise the statement we’d be making by including so many social media references, they just felt like logical ways to tell our story”.
Outside of filmmaking, Komalfe is a multidisciplinary artist, working across music, sculpting and photography. His multiple practices allow him to “talk to [his] crew in their own language and be more specific with direction and notes”, while bringing in more references from other art forms, like the photography of Deanna Lawson, or the music of American jazz icon Alice Coltrane.
Here, he talks us through the making of TOFU, from casting to shooting, and also shares some short film recommendations for those wanting to explore the genre.
Hi Gbenga! Congratulations on TOFU – it’s such a sweet and funny film. How did you come up with the initial idea?
Gbenga Komolafe: My frequent collaborator, Tee Jaehyung Park, and I had just finished wrapping post-production on our last short, Winter Insect, Summer Flower. We wanted to keep the energy going because that project was so fulfilling for us and we just loved our creative chemistry together. We just started brainstorming different approaches to build on the themes we were already thinking about: queer nostalgia, desirability politics, family dynamics, etc. [TOFU] was a perfect blend of everything in our heads at the time, thinking about our personal rocky relationships with our parents, friends that we knew struggling to afford gender-affirming care, and historic restaurants closing left and right in LA because of the pandemic.
Was it important for you to create a narrative that didn’t centre around the trauma of the trans experience?
Gbenga Komolafe: Yes, we wanted to make a movie first and foremost for the girls! The trans community has had enough of the likes of Pose and Tangerine where the trans leads have to suffer to show their humanity and prove they’re worthy of empathy.
I loved one of the opening shots where we see Nikki eating Takis potato chips with chopsticks – it was so playful and evocative. How do you approach creating distinct images like this?
Gbenga Komolafe: I love to spend as much time as possible in pre-production getting to know the characters and the world they live in, and the shots and different props develop from there. Fortunately, I had an amazing crew who were open to all my crazy brainstorms and brought amazing ideas themselves, like the vlogger’s selfie stick or Nikki’s iconic tiny pink bag.
The heartfelt performances really carry the film. Can you talk us through the process of casting Aus Wang as Nikki?
Gbenga Komolafe: We knew that casting for Nikki’s character would be really hard not only because she’s a trans Korean girl, but because of the character and personality she had to embody. Fortunately, our IG network pulled through – we were mutuals and Aus saw someone repost the casting call a few days before we were about to give up. Aus was basically Nikki in the flesh. Casting her was probably the easiest decision in the whole process.
There seems to be an undercurrent of social media commentary in the film – can you go into more detail about this?
Gbenga Komolafe: I don’t think when we first were developing the script, we knew how important a role social media would play in the film. However, in retrospect, there was definitely a subconscious commentary we were making about its importance in our lives, especially in the queer community. Social media makes it easier to connect with people that look like you, share the same values as you, and want to see you win regardless of where you actually are. Whether it’s a Reddit thread discussing the complexities of transitioning or an influencer sharing where she got her work done, social media has made it easier for the queer community to connect with each other.
TOFU is in consideration for this year’s Academy Awards. Do you see this as a channel for more mainstream appreciation of the film’s themes?
Gbenga Komolafe: Yes, I see it as a chance to subvert what’s been expected of queer stories in Hollywood! I see it as a chance to prove that we have so much more to offer than our struggle and trauma.
As well as a director, you’re also a visual artist, a DJ, and a photographer. In what ways do these practices inform your filmmaking?
Gbenga Komolafe: I feel like filmmaking is where I can finally bring all of my different practices and skills together. I bring in my sculptural practice when working with the production designer, I bring in my music theory knowledge when working with the score composer, I bring in my graphic design/photography background when working with the DP, and I even bring in my interest in performance art when working with the actors. I used to be scared that this jack-of-all-trades approach would limit my progress but it’s really been the key to my success when it comes to filmmaking.
Who are your biggest inspirations in filmmaking?
Gbenga Komolafe: Our biggest inspirations for this short film were Zola, Tampopo, Real Women Have Curves, and Mother of George, but personally I’m really inspired by the work of Greg Araki, Sebastian Silva, and Hiro Murai.
I feel like short films are generally quite underappreciated – do you have any recommendations for people who need a place to start?
Gbenga Komolafe: Yes, some of my favourite shorts that we’ve been able to screen alongside this year are How Not to Date While Trans by Nyala Moon, F^¢k 'Em R!ght B@¢k by Harris Doran, and If I Go Will They Miss Me by Walter Thompson Hernandez. I’ll also shout out Slamdance, Newfest, and the NY African Film Fest who are all doing amazing work to uplift emerging talent, and always have a wide range of experimental and narrative shorts in their programming.