Origin Story: Transnationals

By Emily Manthei


I sit alone in my room on a two-inch-deep mattress made of what feels like a stack of notebook pages, mosquito net tucked tightly into the bed beneath it, and start scribbling frantically in my A4-sized journal. Then dark. The power cuts and with it the feeble air conditioning. Luckily, my laptop still has some battery, so I power it up and start working again.
After ordering a French press of “real coffee” (as in, not Nescafe), I take out my laptop and begin to type. It’s hot in the American club, so I take off my scarf, a luxury I’m afforded only because I’m surrounded by other Americans. The power shocks off, and I sit in the dark for a moment. But soon the air returns as a team of generators power on and the waiters continue to buzz, as if nothing had happened.

I walk out of the echo-y, spotless apartment complex and into a cafe with the most amazing Engrish name: CRBD, or “Coffee is Ready, Bread is Done.” The pastries are sat on a table in the center, underneath plexi-glass. An odd dance ensues with the server, who comes out from behind the bar with a little plate and a tongs, ready to place my pastry on the plate. As soon as I order, he disappears with the pastry while I approach the cash register, order a coffee, and take a seat near the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, looking out over an unpaved Cambodian street. I take out my laptop, look up and see that the coffee is ready, the bread is done, and now it’s right in front of me, along with the waiter.

If my life were a film, this is what it would be about: finding focus, consistency of purpose and a cohesive reality among the changing landscapes, cultures and worlds I inhabit. Over the past four years, I’ve lived in seven cities, thirteen apartments, three continents. I love traveling, but sometimes I think it gives me an excuse for not figuring out where I belong in the world. That’s what attracted me to the script I started writing on that powerless evening under my mosquito net in Gajipur, Bangladesh. At that moment I knew that the characters and stories that had been tumbling around in my mind for the past five years needed to find their way home.

I always knew that my script was about multi-culturalism. I knew it was about belonging, in the way that I have sometimes traveled to a new land, without speaking the language or even having any friends, and knowing that I belong; or, conversely, figuring out that I don’t belong in a place I always imagined I would. In my own life, I don’t know exactly why I gravitate to one place and not another, but I knew my characters would have a much more defined sense of belonging-unbelonging, because one thing united them and inspired their searches: they were each adopted.

My script is called Transnationals, and it is about three characters setting out on a search for an unknown family, a forgotten culture and a sense of identity only available to them through a few old photos, remnants of who they were before leaving Asia and being adopted by American parents. In my script, three American women of Asian decent visit their birth countries: Japan, Korea and Bangladesh. Each carries out a search for that part of herself that belongs; and in so doing, each will find her home.

In real life, one of the multitude of small Asian babies, who came all the way from Korea to Midwestern America, ended up as the child of my aunt and uncle. She is five years younger than me, but a soulmate in many ways. We both love travel, accents, anyone “other,” in an open and authentic way. We’re eternally curious. We grew up similarly in large, log cabin-style houses, with a grandmother who adored each of us, and parents who knew we would each by the life of whatever room we walked into. My cousin describes the difference between us as a difference in “origin stories.” I can trace my own origin to a hospital, to photos I have of me in my mother’s arms. My mom still has the hospital ID band I wore during my first days of life. My cousin’s origin story, however, is brought to her on VHS. In the video, she is a two-year-old child, accompanied by a Korean adoption worker, emerging from a jet-bridge at an airport in
Northern Michigan. The small child sees a sea of white faces. She babbles in baby Korean. She meets her parents for the first time at airport arrivals. Beyond the jet bridge, on the other side of the Pacific, her true origin is still a mystery.

In my script, I’ve turned this meditation on identity into a real trio of stories, in which my characters face family drama, culture shock and identity crises that force each to come to terms with her dual identity, her hyphenate self-description and her sense of origins. And I’ve done this all in a script that my readers seem to understand, identify with and perhaps even like (if anyone can be said to truly like reading a script).

Now it’s time for the second phase of the story: shooting. Like many writer-directors, I live for this phase. I can’t wait to put down the computer and coffee and head out into the world of the story, populated by flesh-and-blood actors, bright city lights, spicy kimchi and that sense of movement and energy that I can only describe as my true belonging. I’ll take these precious words from my own pages and destroy them. Completely obliterate them so I can hear them, for the first time, coming directly from my actors’ lips. See them emanating from a curious, wide- eyed camera. Transforming from the hazy, yellow glow of memory and imagination about the past and living into the vibrant, new and sometimes still foggy world of stories on screen.

For me, that means more travel, more change, more shifting sands. It means that, as my characters’ journeys are now set to begin, with their endings already in mind, I must continue to navigate that unknown path so many filmmakers have faced before me: the path from the script all the way to the screen.


Born and raised on the cold northern shores of Lake Michigan, Emily moved to Southern California and earned a B.A. in Theology from Azusa Pacific University in 2005. She has been working in the independent film scene ever since as an art director, production designer, writer and director. In 2008, she earned a Master’s degree in Theology from the University of Edinburgh, for which her thesis was a narrative feature script based on “Either/Or” by Soren Kierkegaard. Her directing work has also taken her to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she has directed nine documentary and short film projects with the country’s only national/international hybrid production company. She has also directed five shorts in Los Angeles which have appeared in local film festivals, one short film in London, England, and an “audience favorite” at the first Radar Film Festival for The Kills’ song, “Passion is Accurate.”

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