This year, while it may be difficult for families to come together to celebrate Lunar New Year, Panda Express tells a sweet story of connection—not just with your closest loved ones, but across cultures.
A short film created by the restaurant brand along with its agency of record The Many released today centers on a young boy named Jordan and a special relationship he develops with his neighbors, the Lee family. After a neighborly hello, the Lees invite Jordan to be a part of their Lunar New Year festivities, during which he’s swept into the sights, sounds and aromas of the family preparing their celebration and feast.
As the home buzzes with activity, Jordan gets to partake in all the trappings of the big event, from the mandarins for prosperity, to lucky red envelopes, and, of course, the food. Ultimately, it makes for a mouth-watering experience to see all laughing and smiling as they dig into the colorful, glistening courses before them.
In the end, the gathering turns out to have had a meaningful impact on Jordan. We realize the family feast was an important memory for him when the film fast forwards several years to show Jordan, now a grown man, once again in front of the Lee family doorstep. This time, however, celebrating the holiday is different, with the pandemic forcing interactions only from afar. But Jordan expresses his thanks with a gift left on the Lee’s porch, a red box of Panda Express Spring Rolls, one of the dishes he savored at their table long ago.
The camera then cuts to Jordan, now surrounded by his own family, who have made it their tradition to celebrate the holiday too—with the help of Panda Express.
“As a family-owned American Chinese brand, Panda Express has the unique opportunity to tell culturally significant stories in a way that connects people through shared values of Lunar New year, and that’s food, family and togetherness,” said Kevin Holmes, executive director of marketing communications at Panda Express. “In approaching this short film, it was important for us to focus on authenticity for not only the holiday but also for our current times.”
The aim of the film was two-fold, according to The Many Creative Director Josh Paialii. Part one was to ”celebrate Lunar New Year as a time of joy and togetherness,” despite the separation imposed by the pandemic. The second aspect was to use the brand’s platform to “not only educate but inspire those learning about Lunar New Year to feel like they can make this holiday a tradition of their own,” he says.
In developing the story, Paialii says The Many team had its sights set on conveying the bridging of two different cultures. “What connects the two is the universal understanding and practice of giving and receiving as a signifier of togetherness and sharing well-wishes,” he says. “Panda has been the first taste of Chinese culture for so many people around the world—just as how the American Chinese brand has invited millions into their kitchen, the short film features Jordan being invited in.”
Maintaining authenticity throughout was key to the film, he adds. Integral to that was the film’s Asian American director, Erica Eng of Strike Anywhere. “Beyond her gifted nature as a director, she was able to impart texture, details, and easter eggs that would feel authentic as a fifth generation Chinese American herself,” Paialii says. “We knew going into the production process that we wanted to work with a Chinese American director. We wanted the vision and elevation of this film concept to be authentic and real in every detail—in every frame.”
Beyond that, the agency was impressed with her storytelling skills. Eng is in the process of finishing her film “Americanized” about an Asian American teen struggling with her identity as she grows up in California. Earlier in her career, Eng was also highlighted as one of the talents in the AICP and DGA’s Commercial Directors Diversity Program, based on her quietly powerful film for Homeboy Industries, which follows a young man’s journey to carving out a new life after he gets out of prison.
“Her initial energy, enthusiasm and connection to Panda’s vision excited us,” Paialii says. And then, they saw her treatment, which elevated “the biggest themes that we were trying to communicate—of togetherness and inclusion.”
The campaign will run until Feb. 28 on Panda Express social channels and on Hulu. It also includes a “digital red envelope” experience as well as a limited-edition product line featuring Lunar New Year celebration kits conceived with Oh Joy! Founder and Creative Director Joy Cho.