With Innerself, AsiaTown's favorite auteur is back in the director's chair

About eight minutes into Innerself, our hero is singing down the familiar streets of St. Clair-Superior when a fight breaks out. It’s the first time in the film that the audience hears the whooshing thwack effect of a kung-fu fight scene. It's a welcome sound that confirms the film’s promotional premise: we are indeed watching a “martial arts musical comedy"—and one shot in Cleveland, to boot.

Innerself, the latest feature film from Cleveland native Johnny Wu, has its premiere this Saturday, May 12, at Lakeshore Cinemas. (Tickets can be purchased here.) The film, which Wu wrote and directed, tells the story of a bullied boy who studies Kung Fu and then becomes a bully himself.

In addition to his day job in video production and marketing, Wu does publicity for the Cleveland Asian Festival (which he co-founded), sits on the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, and takes a leadership role in the Greater Cleveland chapter of Asian Pacific American Advocates (OCA). To say he wears many hats would be an understatement.

“I keep myself busy,” says Wu. “Otherwise, I go insane.”

The son of a Taiwanese diplomat, Wu was born in Cleveland but raised in Panama. He returned to Cleveland to obtain his MBA from Cleveland State and began his production company, Media Imaging Design. On the side, Wu made several shorts, a feature, and a TV show about Asian-American presence in Cleveland. But his agent wanted him to do another feature film.

“I always wanted to challenge myself to do something different,” says Wu. So he suggested the unexpected genre mash-up of Innerself, and his agent went for it.

Shot entirely in Cleveland, filming locations included the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, Negative Space, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, East 40th Street, a Kung Fu school in Slavic Village, Lakewood, and Asia Plaza Li Wah.

The film was a challenge for Wu. For one, he couldn’t write music, so he brought in friend Carson Parish for the movie’s songs. The 11-day shoot itself got grueling at times: cast and crew once put in an 18-hour day just to wrap things up. But it was the editing process that proved most frustrating for Wu. The film had “such different genres, I couldn’t put it together,” he said. But once the music and Kung Fu sound effects were added, he came around to it again.

“It’s like a relationship,” says Wu. “I loved it, hated it, loved it again. It’s my most emotionally involved piece.”

The hard work may soon pay off, as WonderPhil Entertainment will be seeking distribution opportunities for the film this May at Cannes Film Market.

The coming weeks will be busy for Wu: the ninth annual Asian Festival takes place May 19-20. Last year, it drew 50,000 people. Wu is proud of the festival’s celebration of the AsiaTown neighborhood and diversity: “It’s not just for Asians,” he says. “It’s for everybody.”


Billy Hallal
Billy Hallal

About the Author: Billy Hallal

Billy Hallal works as a freelance writer and an adult literacy advocate at Seeds of Literacy. You can find his writing on Northeast Ohio dining and culture at Thrillist and Cleveland Scene.