“Mannequin” unites Bay Area alumni, students and professionals

The man remains in the bathroom of a car repair shop, exchanging words in Vietnamese with an older man, staring at his own reflection in the dirty mirror. The atmosphere is dark and haunted, bright yellow and murky, as if evoking a distant or tragic past. A crew member dressed in black holds a boom microphone above his head in a remodeled bathroom, which is actually one of several rooms rented by the film crew Mac’s housestudio space just off Highway 680 in Fremont.

The main character, played by actor Paul Yen, repeats this scene several times on the director’s orders, each time making minor corrections. “Radio-Television-Film ’07” writer-director-filmmaker Mark Tran consults with Yen and crew members on set before leaving the room to watch the scene unfold on a nearby screen. Once the scene is captured to everyone’s satisfaction, producer Rob Ernst of 10watt Productions puts his hands to his mouth and roars, “Lunch!”

Writer, director and filmmaker Mark Tran on the set of “Mannequin.” Photo courtesy of Thierry Lu.

Approximately 50 staff and volunteers — many of them San Jose State graduates or current SJSU students — devoted four days to filming “Mannequin,” a psychological drama that Tran wrote in 2020. He and his wife welcomed their first child during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the isolation caused by quarantines was exacerbated by a terrifying rise in hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans. Tran, a Vietnamese-American artist and creative producer at Meta, remembers the panic and anxiety of walking through the Oakland neighborhood with his young daughter at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Filmmaking provided an important outlet during this stressful period.

Set in Oakland’s Little Saigon, the film tells the story of Minh, a sleep-deprived father raising his daughter Hien while his wife Trang leaves for a family funeral in Vietnam. In an attempt to comfort his child, Minh disguises a mannequin as his wife, ultimately creating a disturbing obsession with him as his mental state blurs reality and hallucinations.

“It’s a story that seeks to illustrate the deterioration of mental health and the desperation at its core – both primal and visceral,” says Tran. “Mannequin is an exploration of love, grief and the fragile state of the human psyche.”

Once Tran completed the script, he contacted Barnaby Dallas, M.A. Theater Arts ’00, director of film and theater production at San Jose State, to see if current students or recent graduates would be interested in participating in the project. Production support technician Jake Ohlhausen, ’17 RTVF, ’26 MFA Creative Writing, agreed to find student assistants and volunteers to help with the project. Many members of the film crew, including 10watt Productions creative producer Peter Lindsey’08 RTVF, second camera assistant Jennifer Gonzalez-Arias, ’17 English, ’17 journalismand producer Frank Facio, ’21 RTVF, joined the team to complete Tran’s vision. Many of the props were donated or loaned from the RTVF props department, managed by stage shop manager John York.

“One of the things about filmmaking is that it’s really hard to gauge a person’s level of experience,” Ohlhausen says, explaining that production requires many different skills and trades, from electricity to carpentry, costumes and sets to cinematography. Many production assistants help with administrative tasks such as organizing script boards or providing lunch for all staff and volunteers.

“Students learn a lot and in return gain good experiences and film credits. People came together really well on this project,” explains Ohlhausen.

Best group project

SJSU alumni, students and Bay Area professionals formed the crew for “Mannequin,” a short film written, directed and produced by Mark Tran, ’07 RTVF. Photo courtesy of Jake Ohlhausen.

The spirit of collaboration is alive and well on set. Selina Du, RTVF ’25, serves as the second second assistant director – each of these “seconds” indicates the different roles she plays in assisting the directing crew, whether that means assembling props on set, cleaning the workspace, or helping with schedule management. Although she has worked on film sets before, “Mannequin” has special meaning for her as an Asian American.

“Not only is it a particularly Asian-American story, but all of the main actors and crew members are Asian-American,” he says. “It’s really amazing.”

These choices are intentional. Tran sought out native Vietnamese speakers for all roles in the film and even hired a dialect coach to support the actors.

“I think Asian American media in general is incredibly important,” Tran says. “I have lived in America all my life, but I think our presence in film and media is very small in this respect. Such films help raise awareness and offer humanizing stories rather than just offering small roles. We’re a long way from the days of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, and we’ve seen many more great films (created by or starring Asians and Asian Americans) winning Oscars and finally gaining recognition. I love helping to make this program happen because I think there are so many wonderful, diverse stories to tell.”

Fellow Spartan Sydney Freemyer (she/they), RTVF ’25, adds that the experience is beneficial for both the production crew and students. The project allowed her to test out various roles in the art and costume department, working under the supervision of experienced professionals and SJSU graduates working in this field.

“I love working with people like Jennie (Gonzalez-Arias) and Frank (Facio),” they say. “I like the way they both really lifted our spirits and gave us confidence while working on these sets. It’s nice to work with people who are a step or two ahead of us because they still remember what it’s like to be a student.”

Divli Bhat, RTVF ’26, president of the SJSU Film Producers Association, says the “Mannequin” set provided students with a truly professional experience. She serves as the project’s production coordinator, helping Ohlhausen and others utilize the appropriate tools, props and resources for the cast and crew. This experience is crucial for the aspiring director, who wrote and directed a queer horror film titled “Slaughter.

“We usually work on student-dominated sets, where maybe 90% of the crew are students,” says Bhat. “But in this case, only about 10% of us are, which means they are pushing us to a professional level.”

Crew members Gonzalez-Arias and Facio were impressed by the students’ professionalism and commitment to hard work. The Spartan couple now runs The Common Bunch, an independent company that provides high-quality cinematography services throughout the Bay Area and beyond. They collaborated frequently with Ohlhausen, whom Gonzalez-Arias describes as a tremendous resource for students and professionals alike.

“Students definitely want to learn and be useful,” Gonzalez-Arias says. “Even as we were building the sets, they were so eager and excited to be a part of the project, asking, ‘How can I help?’ What do I need to learn? Students understand the etiquette very well, and this is important. They helped with everything from hauling props to building the production, and that was a lot.”

Facio is happy to see that Fremont is quickly becoming the “independent darling” of the film world, with studios like Mac House offering freelancers the space and time to develop projects.

“The fact that the film is shot in our backyard and that all the local people are involved is special,” says Facio. “It’s a grassroots effort; we use every resource. I find it exciting.”

Next steps

Once filming is complete, Tran and his team will spend time on editing and post-production, hoping to release the finished short film later in the fall by early fall. While the project is largely a labor of love – and an obsessive and provocative one at that – Tran credits his time at San Jose State with laying the foundation for his career.

“As a student filmmaker at San Jose State, I had many profound and career-defining experiences,” he says. “I wrote, directed and produced a feature film, “All About Dad” with the support of Barnaby Dallas and Nick Martinez and had the rare opportunity to really make my mark as a filmmaker. Working on films during my undergraduate studies at SJSU has led to countless meaningful friendships and collaborations over the years.

“Peter Lindsey, one of the producers of Mannequin from 10watt, was a fellow student at SJSU. I remember that his work made a huge impression on me at a student film festival. Jeremy Castillo, DP (photographer) for Mannequin, was editor of All About Dad. Something truly special happened during “Mannequin” where I was able to see SJSU students and alumni working together on a film with the same openness and excitement that I had 20 years ago. “I don’t think they realize it, but they also develop friendships and collaborations that will last a lifetime.”

Find out more about “Mannequin”.