Positive

I posted this on a message board on Facebook, but thought it might be interesting to share here. The post was in response to the question  posed “What exactly is a
positive portrayal of Asian American in media?”


As a
filmmaker, I have struggled with this idea often. And I have gotten
criticism from certain people for exactly the reasons you are stating
— the idea of a “positive” portrayals.

To me, the most positive
portrayal is one that is a fully realized character with three
dimensions, complex emotions, and with that usually comes a certain
amount of imperfection. To be honest, I think it can be almost as
dangerous to make portraits of perfect people as it is to make the
Mickey Rooney Breakfast At Tiffanys caricature (or more recently Rob
Schneider in Chuck and Larry). In both cases (the negative stereotype
and the overly positive portrayal), those types of characters are
inherently lies — there are no such people and I believe an audience
knows that. On top of that in the case of a perfect person, the
audience is going to be bored by that type of character because a
perfect person has no drama in their lives.

One of the things I
had not really thought about before making The Motel was the fact that
most people go to the movies for escapism. Unfortunately, films like
mine are not escapist cinema. I enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star
Wars as much as anyone else, but I also believe there is another kind
of cinema that exists with completely different intentions. That other
cinema exists to prod and provoke and instigate thought, not avoid it.

What
I was trying to do with my film was to examine and portray a variation
on our own collective experiences. I think this can be an unnerving
experience for some people who are not used to walking into a movie
theater and being challenged by the story — people that are used to
going to the movies to just have a visceral onslaught of eye candy a la
Transformers . WIth the kind of movie I made, sometimes that means I
force the audience to look at parts of characters that aren’t always
pretty (and sometimes even painful). This can be especially hard for
people who are not used to seeing people that look like themselves on
the screen. My hope is that by looking at life through the filter of a
story, the audience may be able to relate the events of the story to
their own lives and maybe understand and even laugh about some of those
not so pleasant moments in their own lives.

Within our Asian
American community, I think it was this notion that a film like Better
Luck Tomorrow tapped into — the young Asian American (predominately
male) audience wanting to live out a fantasy as high school bad-asses.
I am not criticizing Justin Lin’s film, but rather just pointing out
why that film seemed to reach the tipping point whereas films like
Charlotte Sometimes, Robot Stories, Red Doors and my own The Motel
didn’t reach the mainstream or get the same kind of groundswell support
from the Asian American community. I could actually feel that kind of
expectation from audiences when they went to see my film. Don’t get me
wrong, I got a lot of love from the Asian American community. But at
almost every screening, I could feel the desire by the audiences to
want my film to be another call to arms. I knew that people wanted to
jump up and cheer and rally troops for this growing Asian American film
movement. But if any of you have seen my film, you’d know that any
impetus to do anything besides sit in the dark for a few minutes and
digest the emotional sucker punch my film lays at the end would seem
really odd. It is not the kind of film you get troops to rally for.

One
of the criticisms that would show up at Q&A’s every now and then
was that people were upset that the character of Ernest Chin was fat.
It was those exact pressures and ideas that I was trying to address in
the movie. It baffled me when they were coming up as a criticism of the
film itself. In those cases, I actually felt a little sad because that
meant my film hadn’t accomplished what I set out to do. It meant that
people were still putting a value judgement on the character of Ernest
Chin because of how he looked. In the movie, Ernest Chin is berated
often for his very existence. He is that awkward kid going through
puberty. He’s not the most athletic kid. Showing that was not there as
a source for cheap laughs or to make fun of him, but rather to
empathize with him. Whether or not any of us actually looked like
Ernest Chin during adolescence, I am pretty sure we all felt like he
did in some form or another — too skinny, too pimply, too geeky, too
dumb, etc. But when that critique would come up “Why does Ernest have
to be fat?” I would feel like I had failed on some level.

I
realized that there was this sector that seemed to only want to show
what they believed to be “positive” images of Asians on screen.
Healthy, well-adjusted, romantic, confident, badass, etc. If Ernest
Chin had been a physically fit kid that got all the girls, the movie
simply would not have worked dramatically. Yes, perhaps that would have
been on the surface a “positive” image, but who’s going to watch a
story about a kid who is having no trouble going through puberty?
Beyond wish-fulfillment fantasy, what would the point of that story be?

I
believe that the most important aspect of my job as a filmmaker was to
make the characters (all of them) as human as possible. I think if the
audience watches the movie and simply writes off the characters because
what they perceive on first glance, they would miss the point of the
film. If they have no empathy for the people that inhabit the world of
The Motel, then either I failed or they expected another kind of movie
(which goes back to escapist cinema) or both. If they can’t see the
love that lays just beneath the surface of the “dragon lady” outer
surface of the mother character or the wounded heart and of the
self-destructive Korean American drunkard character, then I failed as a
director.

But if an audience can walk into the movie with an
open mind towards what kind of movie this is, then I think they should
be able to appreciate the amazingly nuanced performances of all the
actors involved. When have we ever seen a character like Ernest Chin, a
chubby awkward Chinese kid who has a sexuality and desire and a full
range of emotions from happiness to rage?

I truly believe that
in political terms, if the audience can walk away from the film and
recognize the character of Ernest as a whole person then I have
accomplished my goal. How can any of them still look at any awkward
Chinese kid the same? They have to accept all of their humanity. And
once they’ve gotten there, how much easier is it to see all people for
who they truly are? To me, that is truly positive.

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9 thoughts on “

  1. To paraphrase Al Pacino, there’s a distinction between character and caricature. As a movie goer, I want to see Asian American characters whether they are good guys or bad guys, beautiful or ugly. I cringe when I see caricatures. It’s unfortunate that not many people look further than the surface layers. What your movie The Motel does well is that it portrays relationships at certain points that make us examine the context of our lives within our own universe. Who hasn’t felt as awkward or angry as Ernest Chin? Who hasn’t talked back to their mother under their breath? I identified with him when his mother called his story stupid. It reminded me of my 98% test score that wasn’t good enough.And even if drunk guy wasn’t exactly a character shown in a positive light, it does reveal a slice of life that is very real regardless of his skin color. It’s unnerving to witness this person who at first, seemed so cool and collected, lose control of himself in the end because of his desperation to be accepted, (even if it’s by an adolescent boy in the early stages of puberty). At the same time, Ernest finds his own power to make decisions that seemingly takes him one step closer to being an adult. Just the juxtaposition of these two characters is worth watching.I think I speak for a lot of people when I say we need more movies in general that shed light to the myriad of issues that the Asian American community deals with as a whole. But in order for that to happen, the movie going community needs to learn to support every Asian American filmmaker out there, regardless of whether or not the characters in those movies are good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Only then will the community as a whole be able to take on and delete caricatures prevalent on the big screen that is so damaging to our collective identity.

  2. Dearest Mike,When I first read The Motel script, I was completely enamoured with the way you were able to ferret out the flaws we all suffer in life. This film is truly one that stems from a realistic perspective and depicts life as we all know it, albeit Asian, Asian American, African American, Italian American, Jewish American, etc. It is universal, and that is what I love about the script and your brilliant talent in bringing it to the fore. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been a part of the project.At first, when I read the part of Ahma, I was reluctant to audition, because Ahma spoke with an accent like all parts that I have been typecast to play. But, stepping back and realizing that this is true to heart, I became obsesessed in wanting to play the part. Ahma had depth. She had hardship. She loves. She’s compassionate. She was a real person. Ernest is a boy, like all boys. Puberty is real. But to be a chubby Asian American boy going through puberty in a vanilla world, it is hundreds times more difficult.I am very proud of The Motel and what you have made out of it. Stereotype can be used against us or for us. In The Motel, it hits the nail of what we, as a global people, and what we go through as immigrants or first or even second generation Asian Americans. It doesn’t matter what color or race you are, it just is.My favorite comment was by your mentor, Miguel Arteta, who said that he had an affinity to focus his projects around “flawed people.” That has been stone-etched in my mind because we are all flawed and to make films about our flaws can only bring attention to those flaws to correct them, or at least, deal with them.Bravo, as always, for your brilliance and efforts. You will always be my “hero.”Much love,Jade Wuaka Ahma Chin in The Motel

  3. I am so down with this entry.  In the end we need to see real people.  Putting out a flat asian american character is awful and defeats any political purpose (for those who care about such things) — you see a face with asian features, you hear some slogans, somebody’s the “good guy”, somebody’s the “bad guy”….  I think that stuff’s useful for people to get out, esp for new/emerging artists, but the best art has true heart.    I’m grateful for my time in our alma mater performance group 😉 b/c I think we learned how to look for heart first. 

  4. I like to see real characters in films. I know a lot of people watch movies to escape from reality, but I actually like it when I can relate to the characters (their flaws and the struggles they go through). I’ve watched too many movies with happy endings (like how the guy and the girl always get together and live happily ever after) only to become cynical and jaded by love. The happy endings filled me with a false sense of hope since my life is nowhere that sunny and ideal. Those movies always present life as how it should be and it has made me resentful because I can never seem to attain the ” happily ever after” life portrayed.

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