Ninlawan Pinyo is a total badass.
The short doc Yai Nin will make you want to call your grandma. Courtesy of the film
“Only I know best how to take care of things,” says 84-year-old Thai businesswoman and matriarch Ninlawan Pinyo as she sits in a salon chair, raising her hands to shield her eyes from hairspray. It’s one of her day’s few moments of reprieve and she wonders how her sausage factory is getting on without her watchful eye pouring over the operations. “It goes for everything; if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.”

This sort of no-nonsense attitude makes Pinyo a compelling central subject of the new short documentary, Yai Nin, directed by her grandson Champ Ensminger and opening on Vimeo this Thursday. Ensminger films the 13-minute short, which he shoots in Chiang Mai, in a slice-of-life style. It starts as the workers at Pinyo's factory file in to begin the process of making naem—a type of fermented pork sausage that's made her a household name in Chiang Mai—and ends in her garden just outside the bustling Thai city.

Through it all, she tells her life story—getting her business off the ground, the loss of her husband, sending her children to America, her love of dogs. Described as a "central figure" in Ensminger's family, Pinyo serves as an extraordinarily endearing and blunt narrator who will likely make you want to call your own grandmother immediately.

“[Yai Nin] really resonates with an Asian American, and especially Thai American audience. Everybody just loves reminders of what it's like to have...grandparents and visiting the home culture and home country,” said Ensminger in a recent phone interview. “That's something that is pretty universal for a lot of diasporic families, especially in America.”

The doc quietly observes the factory operations, interviewing its workers that have come to view Pinyo as a member of their own family. It lingers in corners of her house, veggie markets, and her hairdresser’s salon, weaving in Miyazaki-inspired animation and family footage. Pinyo proudly shows off her various iPads and iPhones, counting them as crucial devices to keep her connected with family in America.

Yai Nin is an affirmative portrait of an Asian woman at a time when images of racist violence against people of Asian descent—especially elders—proliferates throughout news media in the U.S.

"I'm just really grateful that this is coming out now, to be able to give another dimension of the Asian American experience that is positive,” said Ensminger. “[In Yai Nin], an Asian woman business owner is thriving; you see her vitality and not taking any shit. That’s something that we really want to see on screen for ourselves as Asian Americans.”

Born in Chiang Mai and raised in Spokane, the seeds of this project began when Ensminger moved back to Thailand in 2013. As his grandmother has gotten older, trips to the U.S. got challenging, so her visits became more infrequent. Moving to Thailand presented an opportunity to spend time with her and a chance to see her as he's never seen her before: in “businesswoman mode"—dressed up in a suit, barking orders, overseeing factory operation, being a total badass.

“In another world, she could have been a line producer for making movies or something because she's just so alpha,” Ensminger observed of his grandmother’s ability to get shit done.

While working in video production and editing, Ensminger was inspired to write a treatment for a short doc about his grandmother once he relocated back to the U.S. After encouragement from his colleagues about the project, he slowly assembled a crew and organized the finances to make the documentary a reality, culminating in a three-day shoot in Chiang Mai in December 2018.

Since the short’s completion, it’s screened at festivals around the country, taking home Best Documentary Short at both the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and the Local Sighting Film Festival last year. It will debut on Vimeo on Thursday, May 27, for the public, with a special early access premiere the day before with a live Q&A following the screening.

Ensminger tells me he made Yai Nin for his cousins and extended family as a way to pay tribute to both Pinyo and his late grandfather, preserving their stories for generations to come. With its release, he hopes that Asian American viewers—and people who just miss their grandmas—will find solace in her story.