Joy Joy Nails, 2017.

Joy Joy Nails is a brilliant short film from director Joey Ally that follows the lives of various Asian women who work at a nail salon.

Inspired by “The Price of Nice Nails”—the controversial 2015 New York Times investigation alleging terrible working conditions at salons across New York City—Joy Joy Nails, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year in partnership with the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women, juxtaposes the enjoyably relatable humanity of the characters and their work with the darker realities of what that work requires.

The striking visuals of Joy Joy Nails help unpack that contrast in a thoughtful and compelling way. The bright pink neon sign-dotted room that is meant to represent a place of relaxation and pampering is laid side by side with the fluorescent light-tinted break room and the harsh chemicals that clients don’t have to see.

What also stands out about Joy Joy Nails is how meaningfully it addressed so many complicated issues in such a short amount of time. We see the stratification of women from different Asian countries. We also see discrimination between the Korean workers and the Chinese ones—presumably based on the NYT report that the Korean owners who run a large part of the nail industry pay fellow Koreans far more than other Asian workers. For a mainstream audience, it’s the kind of subtle look at racism that hardly exists in popular media.

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“A lot of the time in America [people] think, they’re all Asian, but there’s a lot of different countries like Vietnam or China or Korea,” Kahyun Kim, who plays the lead role of Sarah, told me. “How they interact in the nail salon, and how they base their hierarchy on their country—I found that storyline very interesting. And I thought that is a story that isn’t very commonly told.”

The Korean-born Julliard graduate appeared in the play Linda Vista by August: Osage County scribe Tracy Letts at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater this past April; she is currently shooting Disney Channel’s upcoming Freaky Friday musical. I chatted with her about Joy Joy Nails, the tricky balance of being an actress of color, and the blessing of acting in a post-Sex and the City world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


What was it like portraying your character, who is complicated and even in 18 minutes goes through quite the journey?

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It was really interesting for me seeing where she starts and where she ends. Even with makeup and costume we tried to portray that [journey] a lot. At the beginning, I have very strong colors. My lip is very bold, like bright pink, and at the end I almost have no makeup. So where my journey starts and where it goes, especially with the incident that happens in the middle and what I learn from that and what I choose to become, was very interesting.

And also, this doesn’t really have to do with my journey itself, but how I chose to do my accent. I obviously speak fluent English and Korean, and Joey and I had a long discussion about why Sarah chose to speak English instead of Korean with [Matthew], even though [she’s] way more comfortable with Korean and how she tries to prove herself to him by speaking English.

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It’s small little details. When we first started rehearsing I was like, if I have a Korean person, I don’t normally speak English to them. 99% of the time I’d speak Korean because it’s my first language. Because I speak fluent English, I, Kahyun, never try to prove myself by speaking English, but we ended up mixing Korean too. It was a moment where I realized how different it is.

Part of what’s so striking about Joy Joy Nails is that you have a group of diverse Asian women nail salon workers.We never really see groups of Asian women in media, and when we do, they are treated as stereotypes. What was it like being part of such a positive and real depiction? 

I mean, it’s empowering, you know? I haven’t been professionally acting that long, but it was very empowering and just fun to be surrounded by Asian women. All the Korean parts were played by Korean women. Yi [Liu] who plays the Chinese girl, she’s from China. Being surrounded just by Asian women who are powerful and trying to create a story...I’ve never had that experience before.

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A lot of the time, it doesn’t work that way. Like I [usually] will play the one token Asian. We always joke about it, if my [Asian] friends and I are going for the same project, but she’s going out for the older woman and I’m going for the young one, we’re like, ‘I guess it’s between you and me, because there’s no way they’re going to cast two Asian women on one screen!’ It’s really hard to see even one Asian, one black person, and one Hispanic person on one screen. If they mark one ethnic part with a black woman then that part is filled. They have their diversity.

Like they have a one-person quota.

It’s so interesting because I also feel like there’s also this trap, where I don’t necessarily want there only to be projects with all Koreans. I want us to just be humans in stories, in American stories, where there is diversity. To not be afraid to cast more than two Asians in a show, but that doesn’t mean it has to be an “Asian show.”

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Sometimes I feel like people think, “Oh we need an ethnic story,” instead of being like, “they’re actually going to be normal human beings.” There can be more than two black women on one screen or two Hispanic women, and it doesn’t have to be just a black story, just a Hispanic story. I think that balance is something that’s very important that we find in the industry.

What is your dream role?

I actually kind of did play—well, one of my favorite roles I just did Tracy Lett’s new play called Linda Vista that was at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and that has been definitely like my dream come true role and production. It was just my favorite thing ever.

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There’s been a lot of talk about improving diversity in entertainment—have you noticed a shift in your time as an actress?

You know, not really. I joined when it was starting, so I think I was one of the lucky ones. When I talk to my friends who have been acting for 10-15 years, I definitely hear that it has [improved]. I was actually thinking as I was watching Sex and the City, like a whole season of it, recently. It really made me think how fortunate I am now. Because there was really—and I’m saying, not only the main four women, who are fantastic actors, but even the guest stars—there’s really none [who aren’t white.] It’s really hard to find guest stars who are diverse. So that makes me think it has changed a lot.

Note: this story was updated to include a previously omitted question about Kim’s dream role.