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SXSW 2023 Interview- Paris Zarcilla and Chi Thai Talk The Cathartic Power Of Their Movie Raging Grace

Raging Grace from writer and director Paris Zarcilla, premiering at SXSW 2023, is many things at once. It is a horror story about racism and the vulnerability of undocumented workers, but it also celebrates Filipino culture. Beautifully shot with fever-dream sequences and a liltingly lovely soundtrack, it is a deceptively powerful movie that gets under your skin. In an interview with writer and director Paris Zarcilla and producer Chi Thai at SXSW 2023, you instantly understand where this film’s theme originated. It is a deeply personal story of confusion, sadness, and rage.

The movie is a cathartic mix of ghost story, mysticism, generational abuse, and deep human strength in the face of terrible cruelty. Joy is an undocumented Filipino woman living in Great Brittain, where she works as a maid and tries desperately to provide for her daughter Grace. Thanks to Joy, Grace is a delightfully mischievous little girl with little of her mother’s stress or worry. When she lands a job acting as a maid and caretaker for a terminal elderly man, she is ecstatic. The money and living situation is a dream that could be the answer to all her problems. But unfortunately, she makes a terrible discovery shortly after starting that puts her and Grace in a very dangerous situation and threatens everything she has ever believed.

It’s a brutal movie to internalize because so much injustice is bursting from the screen. Raging Grace seethes and boils as we watch Joy toil. Simmering just below the surface of this film are emotions it can barely contain. Like most great stories, it is very personal. Written at the height of the pandemic, it has a desperate feel that drives the tension throughout. Zarcilla said he began writing it in 2020, which was “such a chaotic year.”

He was shocked by all the hate, particularly because Filipino nurses were called so often to help and were dying in huge numbers, and yet the rhetoric in the UK and elsewhere was very anti-Asian. He wrote the story because he “needed to put that rage into what I felt good at doing.” Zarcilla continued that it was important to show “the horror of trauma” and specifically what it was to be an undocumented worker, but it was “vital to move beyond that and into a place of joy” For him, the movie was a “coming of rage” and a celebration. He gave himself permission to be angry but also celebrate his culture.

Zarcilla explained so often, he was taught to “assimilate and be a good Asian.” So it was important for both of them to show the horror of Joy and Grace’s situation but also appreciate the beautiful cultural touchstones that can get lost in the vulnerability of so many who are trying to make a better life for themselves. Raging Grace taps into that with the gorgeous soundtrack by Jon Clarke. Thai said Clarke “elevated everything.” The soundtrack informs the entire movie and puts the viewer in the headspace necessary to feel Joy’s panic, fear, despair, and pride. She went on to say the composer “created something that felt really new but old.” His music truly transformed the film.

Zarcilla knew he needed the music to be more than sounds and notes. He needed it to be the “rhythm and heartbeat of the film.” As a result, Clarke’s music is so haunting and plaintive at times, and others, so joyful it truly becomes the soul of the movie. Zarcilla continued that his music “put us squarely within the horror genre with sound.” He credits the composer with creating a unique sound built from a Pentatonic scale not usually heard on a larger scale for Western audiences.

These two got together after Thai saw Zarcilla’s short film Pommel. The story of young brothers working through their complicated relationship while competing in a gymnastics completion made her want to work with him. She explained that the “British-Asian community in the UK is very fragmented.” Finding someone you connect with artistically and culturally is a rarity, and she didn’t want to miss a chance to work with him. We are all fortunate as they were scheduled to work on another project that didn’t happen, making way for Raging Grace.

When asked what was next for them, they both said they wanted to make more movies, tapping into their personal and cultural experiences. Zarcilla is currently writing his next feature, a story set in 90s London about a young Filipino couple running a cafe by day and a covert rescue mission to rescue domestic workers from abusive employers on the weekends. This story is based on Zarcilla’s parents. He first heard these heroic stories when writing Raging Grace. The pair will be teaming up again on this new movie that Thai describes as “a heist movie, but not one you’ve ever seen before.”

Congratulations to Raging Grace which has taken top honors in the SXSW 2023 Narrative Feature Competition Award. Find all our SXSW 2023 coverage here.