High School Student Nayon Lee Has Already Won 4 Film Awards, and She’s Just Getting Started

When Nayon Lee first decided to make Smother, she didn’t think that it would be such a big deal, let alone garner four prestigious awards. “In the beginning, I thought I was just going to film it on my phone or something,” she says. 

Her grand plan had involved asking her friends to act in it and using iMovie to edit the footage. Instead, Nayon found herself working with a professional crew from whom she learned how to write, direct, and put a film together.

Smother by Nayon Lee
Smother has already won four awards at different film competitions.

Nearly 15 minutes long, Smother tells the story of a young teenage girl and her complicated relationship with food and her own mother. The scenes were mostly shot inside her house, while several exterior shots were filmed in her local neighborhood in Stanley, Hong Kong. “Everything was kind of contained in probably a 400-meter radius,” she says.

The final product ended up going a little further than that. Several months ago, Nayon received the Outstanding Achievement Award under the Young Filmmaker – Female category at the Indie Short Fest in L.A. Then just a few weeks ago, she received an Award of Merit at the IndieFEST Film Awards and awards for Best Young Director and First-Time Screenwriter at the Hong Kong World Film Festival.

In this case, age isn’t as big a factor of success as opportunity is. Nayon was 15 when she started working on Smother. She already had a vision of what she wanted to do—all she needed was someone to give her a chance.

Finding herself in filmmaking

Nayon has always been interested in filmmaking. One of her biggest inspirations is Sofia Coppola. “She made a film called The Virgin Suicides, and I was really interested by that, and that was when I first started being interested in film,” says Nayon. “I was interested in how different film techniques, and also how writing and editing and the technical aspects, how they all come together to make a good film.”

Nayon Lee - Smother - OWN Academy
Most of the scenes were shot in Nayon's house in Hong Kong.

In fact, even before Smother, Nayon was already experimenting with edits. Compiling different clips from other films and interspersing them with music, Nayon created an edit that also revolves around an eating disorder. It received more than 200,000 views on YouTube. “[That] kind of made me more interested in the topic because I realized, oh I can actually make an impact and people are actually watching and commenting and appreciating this,” she says.

Nayon Lee with Natalie Chan and Caius Chung
With the help of her mentors, Natalie Chan and Caius Chung, Nayon Lee turned an idea into a short film that has a resounding impact.

It only strengthened her passion for the medium. When Nayon told her mother that she wanted to shoot a film, her mother introduced her to Natalie Chan, the founder and CEO of OWN Academy who ended up customizing a filmmaking program for her. Unlike the film club at Nayon’s school whose activities are mostly limited to watching films, OWN Academy’s program is anchored on experiential learning, in learning through doing.

Students who join any of OWN Academy’s programs—from the Soho House mentorships to the annual OWN Future Fair—can expect to be introduced to real professionals who are eager to share their experience and expertise with the next generation. In Nayon’s case, it was Caius Chung, a seasoned filmmaker, who helped bring her vision to life. From him, she learned how to turn her script into a story. Eugene Chan, a director of photography, taught her the storyboarding process and the different shots she could make to enrich her narrative.

Experiencing growing pains

The program with OWN Academy started in the summer of 2021 and lasted all the way through to February of the following year. In between schoolwork and extracurriculars, Nayon found herself dealing with the concomitant highs and lows of the filmmaking process. One element that she particularly remembers stressing over is casting. In filmmaking, an actor can make or break your story, and despairing of ever finding the right person, Nayon almost settled for her second choice.

Nayon Lee - Smother - OWN Academy
Finding the right actor for her film was quite a challenge, according to Nayon.

“Persistence is really important,” she muses after describing the challenges she encountered in the search for the right actors to give her characters justice. “I wouldn’t have found the perfect actors that I wanted for my role if I didn’t keep on looking for different actors on all types of social media, and I was just asking around a lot.” 

This problem isn’t any different from the concerns Caius or Eugene also deal with in their respective work. It was one of the things that Nayon appreciated about OWN Academy’s program. There was no sense that the grownups were just humoring her or letting her play at being a filmmaker. Every hoop she had to jump over is the same hoop professional filmmakers have to face. Having made it on the other side, Nayon can’t help but see herself in a different light.

“Before, when I thought about making a film, it just felt so far away,” Nayon explains. “Now that I have more experience, I know what happens behind the scenes, I know what happens that leads up to pre-production—communicating with other people, setting up equipment, things like that. I think with all that, I feel a lot more confident going into my next project.”

Coming into her own

When Nayon first released Smother out into the world, she felt apprehensive and nervous. For one, the subject of the film is deeply personal. “I had an eating disorder when I was around 12 years old,” says Nayon, “so I didn’t really have any other opportunities to kind of talk about that until this came.”

Nayon Lee Wins 4 Film Awards
Video calls were par for the course during the program.

Another concern Nayon had was that the film might not have encompassed everything that it had to. “But I think as time went by, I kind of realized, like, this is only my first project, and I’m really proud of it for what it is,” she says, “and even if it isn’t like the perfect representation, it is my story, and I’m just happy that I got to share that.”

Her experience working on the film has certainly shifted something inside her. Nayon says that filmmaking doesn’t feel like just another hobby anymore. “It kind of made me wonder if this is something that I want to do in the future, like for what I want to study in college, what I want to keep doing when I graduate and look for a job.”

Nayon Lee - Smother - OWN Academy
Nayon's experience with OWN Academy opened her eyes to what else she could do in the future.

Nayon is 16 years old now, a junior, and while she’s busy with exams, she already has her next project lined up. “This summer, I’m planning on making a documentary about mental health workers during COVID,” she says. “I know a lot of mental health workers have found it difficult and also a lot of people here in Hong Kong have found it kind of difficult to balance their mental health during COVID and because of all the changes”

While she’s still in the planning stage, Nayon has already reached out to several psychologists on her own. At this point, she doesn’t need a script or a crew yet. She just needs to decide what she wants to do and then do it. It’s one of the key things she’s picked up from her time with OWN Academy.

“I’m the kind of person that would put things off and wait for opportunities,” she says, “but I think, having this opportunity right in front of me and being able to take it and do things that I didn’t really think I’d be able to do was one of the biggest takeaways for me.”