2016 alumnus Lawrence Le Lam’s 20-minute short film Cypher is raking in acclaim. Most recently, Cypher has been nominated for 3 Leo Awards – Best Screenwriting, Best Sound Design, and Best Editing. The editing for Cypher was done by another Emily Carr alumnus Alexander Farah (2014). Farah and Lam met at Emily Carr at a media show Lam curated during his time as a student. Lam, who confessed to organizing these events partly to scope out artists he admired for future collaborations, was excited by the opportunity to work with Farah on Cypher. Teaming up proved fruitful. Cypher has already won several awards from the Vancouver Shot Film Festival including Best Sound Design, Best Actor, Best Cinematographer, Best Director for Lam himself, and finally, the much coveted Best Short Film.
Cypher journeys through the underground hip hop scene in LA in the aftermath of the tensions between the Black and Korean communities that culminated in the 1992 riots. The film centers around two characters whose lives are irreversibly changed by both hip hop and the riots: Jay and Thello, two talented young rappers who experienced the events of 1992 from opposing stances. Cypher explores how the hip hop community served to bridge the seemingly insurmountable distance between people, cultures, and ideas.
Lam had several inspirations for Cypher. The first is Lam’s love of music, and how it interacts with the kind of stories Lam wants to tell.
“Music is a harmonizer,” says Lam, “and it creates intersections of culture.”
Lam is interested in creating work that talks about the Asian diaspora in relatable ways. He’s had a lot of success approaching these narratives by way of focusing on subcultures, specifically musical countercultures. His last film, The Blue Jet, is about a DJ in Taiwan in the 1970s who broadcasts forbidden rock ‘n’ roll. Additionally, Lam cites The Blue Jet as being about Taiwanese kids who want to emulate an American-ness, “which may be more relatable.”
The second major influence for Cypher was the book Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central Chicago by Jooyoung Lee, who documented how the underground hip hop scene created community and saved lives.
Finally, Cypher was created as part of the Crazy 8s festival, a festival which challenges emerging film makers to create a short film in only 8 days. Originally, Lam didn’t want to participate in Crazy 8s, because he didn’t feel like he could create high quality work in such a short amount of time. Fortunately, Jerome Yoo, the actor Lam worked with on The Blue Jet and who plays the main character in Cypher, convinced Lam that they should work together in the Crazy8s Festival. Yoo and Lam bonded over their love of South Korean rap, specifically mega-influential rapper Tiger JK. They heard a story about Tiger JK witnessing the LA riots firsthand and subsequently using hip hop to create a dialogue. The anecdote resonated with Lam, who then created a fictionalized version of this event which became the impetus for Cypher.
The Crazy8s Festival showed Lam that he was a capable director. Watching the film, audiences would have no idea that this was ever in doubt, but Lam didn’t always know he wanted to direct. His trajectory carried him from acting, to business marketing, to graphic design, and finally to film, where Lam is thriving.
“The greatest aspiration of film is to be a device of enlightenment,” says Lam.
Lam is currently in the research and development phase of his first feature-length film. Lam says he has so many ideas he feels like they’re all rushing out at once, but he knows roughly the direction he’d like the film to take. His short film, The Blue Jet was inspired by his father, and his feature-length film, focused around ideas of what it means and looks like to be a matriarch, is inspired by his mother.
Cypher has appeared in the Edmonton International Film Festival, the Whistler International Film Festival, and recently screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. We wish Lam, Farah, and the whole Cypher team all the best with this year’s Leo Awards.
You can visit Lawrence Le Lam at lawrencelelam.com, or follow him on twitter at @lawrencelelam.