Show Business

I had been hesitant to write about the casting choices for the up coming movie “21.” For those that aren’t aware, the true story that the book was based on was about a group of Asian American students from MIT that went in to destroy the casinos at blackjack. In the Hollywood version, the group is predominantly Caucasian (even though a major detail in the book is the fact that a  part of the strategy of the team was recruiting Asian students in order to use the pit bosses’ own racist notions against them i.e. Asians pulling $1000’s at a blackjack table doesn’t seem out of place at all and also if they are an Asian American woman there is no way they could be smart enough to be counting cards).

Sure, it is the kind of distinctly American nuance that I would love to see in a Hollywood movie — the same way I was pleased with the very natural way some of the best comedies these days are multicultural like “40 Year Old Virgin” and “The Office.”

But from all I can gather, “21” does not seem like it is about nuance.

Recently, I have noticed (mostly on facebook) a grumbling by Asian Americans about the choice to feature non-Asians in the film and only a couple token Asians. There is even a movement to try and boycott the film.

There is something I just can’t get behind in this movement. Call me a sell-out, but I just see the whole idea of boycotting it as naive and a little bit pointless. The only reason I am bringing it up now is because I saw that Guy Aoki put his hat into the ring on the issue. (He doesn’t call for a boycott and I agree with him that this is something people should be aware of).

But here is the bottom line: Hollywood doesn’t care about Asian America. They didn’t make the movie to give better roles to Asian Americans. They made the movie to make money. You make money by selling tickets. You sell movie tickets by giving the audience something cool to watch. Gambling is cool. Vegas is cool. The wish-fulfilment fantasy of beating the casinos is cool. Asian Americans (unfortunately in their eyes) are NOT cool.

What disheartens me the most about the call to boycott this film is that it is like trying to beat the casino. The house always wins. Why? Because the game is rigged in their favor. Yes, every now and then there are winners (Ang Lee, Justin Lin, Harold & Kumar), but for the most part the house ALWAYS wins.

How we as a community lose is that we risk creating the perception of Asian Americans as cry-babies. And when we have something to truly be outraged by we will be written off as once again knee-jerking some issue. 

On top of that, even if every Asian American decided not to go see this film, the effect at the box office would be negligible — not even a blip. We just don’t have the buying power to pressure anyone. Also, by spreading emails and posting on message boards (and blogging about it), we are giving the movie free publicity!

At the heart of this whole issue, I ask this question: WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT HOLLYWOOD WOULD EVER GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU?

I spent many years getting upset at exactly these kinds of racist protrayals (or lack of positive portrayals) of Asian Americans in film. But after a while I realized that Hollywood isn’t going to change for the sake of being virtuous. I realized that my desires to have them re-align their priorities to fit mine was futile. Their goal is not even in opposition to my goals; they are on two completely different planes. I want stories with substance and nuance; they want box office numbers.

That is exactly the reason when it came to my own work that I went to Korea to get money to make “West 32nd.”  Hollywood was not going to make my movie. I knew that. It took a Korean company to finance my work in order to get it done. If I kept knocking on Hollywood’s door and asked for their approval, I would never have gotten the film made (or the film would have been drastically changed to suit “American” tastes).

We need to start supporting our own and ignoring stuff like this. It makes me sad that there are some great Asian American films out there that have routinely gotten ignored. I don’t know what it would take to get people to direct half the energy they use to hate on towards being positive about the stuff that is already out there.

If you are a regular reader here, you know I try to plug as much positive Asian American stuff out there, but it never catches fire the way the reactionary crap does.

Here’s a mini-run-down: “American Zombie” is in theaters this week in LA. You can see both “Half-Life” by Jennifer Phang and “Munyurangabo” by Lee Isaac Chung in New York. This week “Baby” by Juwan Chung was playing in LA as part of a special screening with VC (which I am bummed I missed). There is plenty more you can get on DVD. And most importantly, don’t bootleg it!

Even within the film “21” there is a bone thrown that can be seen as a positive. My man Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) has a supporting role in the blackjack team. Yeah, it’s not much, but you know what? He’s beginning to blow up and getting more exposure in a high profile Hollywood film is a good thing. The more work he gets, the more he’ll be able to do projects like “American Pastime” and other Asian American work.

The best way to remedy all of this is to make being Asian American and telling Asian American stories cool. Let’s buy our own. Support our artists. Show the world that we can do cool shit. Once we focus on that, I guarantee Hollywood will follow.

It’s been a while since I had a solid rant up here. It feels good.

       

Half-Life

Another event for New Yorkers. You should go check it out. I know I will when it gets to LA.

Half-Life
a film by Jennifer Phang

As troubling signs of global cataclysms accelerate, a brother and sister react to their father’s desertion and the powerful presence of their mother’s new boyfriend.

Official Selection 2008 Sundance Film Festival

Official Selection 2008 SXSW Film Festival

Official Selection 2008 Gen Art Film Festival

Screening on Sunday April 6, 2008
The Visual Arts Theatre
(formerly Clearview Chelsea West)
333 West 23rd Street

Click here to buy tickets
(includes admission to afterparty)
Use code JPHANG5 for discount

” An imaginative and deeply affecting effort……Half-Life marks the debut of a promising, truly independent film artist.”

    – The Hollywood Reporter

“Refreshingly entertaining and original … beautifully audacious, taking hold of all its risks and letting them run free to flourishing ends.”

– Indiewire

“Exists on a whole other, higher level of cinematic ambition than any other film at Sundance this year….. It is formally inventive, deeply personal and emotionally compelling…. “

    – Mike Ryan, Hammertonail.com

“An ‘Asian-American Beauty’ set against a backdrop of global decay and illuminated by splashes of ‘Waking Life’-style animation… evinces the sort of imagination that is necessary for human survival in the world as we know it.”

    – Daily Variety

Sassy My Ass

A friend pointed me to the leaked trailer for the American remake of My Sassy Girl. It pretty much is what I thought it would be — a caucasianized carbon copy of the original. The main thing that I walk away feeling after watching the trailer is that this version looks so mediocre. If you want to see an original, creative, funny romantic comedy, watch the Korean version!

Shout Out

Thanks to Shift747 for pointing this out to me — a nice article about Lee Isaac Chung, a fellow Korean American filmmaker who’s film “Munyurangabo” is (has?) screened at the New Directors / New Films Series in New York this year.

I met Isaac briefly in Pusan and he seemed like a really nice guy. Before that he had actually written me here on xanga (though I can’t seem to remember what his screename is). Regardless, you should check his work out. I think he is going to be huge.

From the New York Times:

Rwanda, Speaking in Its Own Voice
By DENNIS LIM

IT is safe to say that when
most American filmmakers think about the global reach of their movies,
they are not considering the concept in quite the same way as Lee Isaac
Chung, whose first feature, “Munyurangabo,” happens also to be the first narrative feature made in Rwanda’s native language of Kinyarwanda.

“I know this sounds idealistic, but it was a conscious decision to
make a film for and about Rwandans,” Mr. Chung, 29, said in an
interview last spring during the Cannes Film Festival,
where his film had its premiere. “It was definitely not a practical
decision,” he added, referring to the challenge of making a movie in a
country he had never visited and where he did not speak the language.
“But since it was our first film, we thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

A few years ago Mr. Chung’s wife, Valerie, an art therapist who had
traveled to Rwanda as a volunteer to help those affected by the 1994
genocide, urged him to accompany her. He signed on to teach a
filmmaking class at a Christian relief base in Kigali, the Rwandan
capital, in the summer of 2006.

Sensing an opportunity to make a movie that presents the country as
it is now, not simply as a historical site of atrocity, he arrived with
a nine-page outline — the story of two teenage boys and the
single-minded quest that comes between them — which he had written with
the help of Samuel Anderson, an old friend. He shot “Munyurangabo” at
the end of his trip, over 11 days, working with nonprofessional actors
he found through local orphanages and using a few of his students as
crew members.

The day after his film’s premiere, sitting with a few of his actors
in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Cannes, Mr. Chung seemed a little
stunned that his intimate, micro-budget film had brought him to such
glamorous surroundings. He had submitted it to the festival “blind and
right on deadline,” he said. “I don’t know that we had any expectations
while shooting. We weren’t thinking about it in terms of careers.”

Writing in Variety, the critic Robert Koehler called “Munyurangabo”
the discovery of the Un Certain Regard section. The film is still
without a United States distributor, but it has since played at more
than a dozen festivals, including those in Toronto and Berlin and at
the AFI Fest in Los Angeles (where it won the top prize), and it will
screen in New York this week as part of the New Directors/New Films
series, which begins on Wednesday. ( It is showing at the Walter Reade
Theater on Thursday and at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday.)

On paper the production of “Munyurangabo” — the title is the name of
one of the characters and of an ancient Rwandan warrior — would seem to
have been facing a thicket of cultural and linguistic barriers, but the
filmmakers made the most of the situation by soliciting the input of
the cast. “We had to leave it very open,” said Mr. Anderson, who was in
Rwanda for the filming. “Sometimes we would just ask: ‘Does this seem
realistic?’ ‘What would someone do in this situation?’ It helped that
our translator had a great ear for the subtleties of language.”

Mr. Chung also served as cinematographer and editor. He shot with an
old mechanical camera on super-16-millimeter film, “for aesthetic
reasons” but also because of concerns over the erratic power supply in
Rwanda, which would make lighting and working with a digital camera
difficult. This made for a harrowing return trip, since airport
security “kept trying to put the film through the X-ray machine,” he
said. On the set the biggest glitch came midway through the shooting
when one of the actors shaved his head, forcing the production to take
a five-day break while his hair grew back.

Unlike the bigger-budget Rwanda-themed films of recent years — “Hotel Rwanda,” “Sometimes in April,” “Beyond the Gates”
— “Munyurangabo” does not explicitly revisit the 1994 slaughter of
Tutsis by extremist Hutus. It is instead a quiet accounting of the
aftermath, tracing the ripple effects as they are felt among friends
and within households, setting the thirst for vengeance against the
possibility of reconciliation.

And unlike most movies set in strife-torn faraway lands and made by
American or European directors, “Munyurangabo” declines to provide the
requisite surrogate figure — usually a noble do-gooder — for the
Western audience. The desire to remove the presence, and even the
perspective, of the outsider-observer was “partially a test,” Mr. Chung
said, “to see if we could bridge gaps between cultures.”

Questions of identity and belonging have fascinated and flummoxed
Mr. Chung for much of his life. He was born in Colorado a year after
his parents emigrated from Korea, and he grew up in rural Arkansas. (He
now lives in Brooklyn.) “I’ve never felt completely American,” he said.
“Growing up where I was, there were no Asians, no minorities, and there
was always something to remind me of what I’m not. And when I go to
Korea it’s the same thing. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not
Korean.”

This sense of placelessness lies at the heart of “Munyurangabo.” “I
wanted to make something that transcends borders and gets beyond this
feeling of national identity,” Mr. Chung said recently over drinks in
Brooklyn. It is a sentiment that links his film with the recent work of
Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), So Yong Kim (“In Between Days”) and Lance Hammer (“Ballast,”
also screening at New Directors/New Films). All are adventurous young
American directors who represent a break from the domestic indie
tradition, drawing instead from the humanist, neorealist school and
contemporary descendants like Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Belgium’s Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

Mr. Chung discovered these filmmakers, as well as other world-cinema touchstones like Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky,
while studying biology at Yale. The next step would have been medical
school, but he was so smitten with movies by his senior year that he
chose to pursue a graduate film degree at the University of Utah.
As a student Mr. Chung “had the uncanny ability to absorb and replicate
the style of his favorite filmmakers,” said Kevin Hanson, chairman of
the film department at the University of Utah. “When he settled into
his own work, this paid off big for him.”

Mr. Chung and Mr. Anderson are looking closer to home for their next
project, “Lucky Life,” a drama about friendship and mortality inspired
by a poem by Gerald Stern,
the onetime poet laureate of New Jersey. “It’s a film about
disillusionment as a positive force,” Mr. Chung said. “Munyurangabo”
was self-financed, but the financing for the new film, which will
probably be a Korean co-production, is already largely in place. Mr.
Chung acknowledged that the festival success of “Munyurangabo,” while a
boon, has occasionally left him uncomfortable.

“There are times I’ve almost felt colonialist about it,” he said,
referring to the awkward position of being an American effectively
representing Rwanda on the international festival circuit. “Getting
into Cannes and getting recognition only compounded the feeling. I’ve
been talking about cinema about and by Rwandans, and I still want that
to happen, but I know that’s not what we did with this film.”

Lack of infrastructure remains a major impediment to the growth of
Rwandan film culture. There are only two theaters in the country, Mr.
Chung said, which cater mainly to expatriates. “Munyurangabo” has yet
to play in Rwanda, though a screening is planned for this year. Mr.
Chung is also returning this summer, as he did last summer, to teach
and work toward the establishment of a film school.

There are already signs of progress. A few of his students have just
finished their own film, Mr. Chung said. He hasn’t seen it, but he does
know one thing: “They’re submitting it to Cannes.”

Opening Ceremony

Those of you in New York should check out Opening Ceremony. My good friend Olivia Kim is one of the people behind it and it makes me so proud to see it doing such kick ass stuff. It’s like seeing my little sister graduate school.

If you missed the front page of the New York Times style section two weeks ago. You can read up about why they are the best boutique in New York. (BTW that’s Olivia modeling in the pic in the left panel)

And as a bonus, check out this event coming up with Wong Kar Wai:

Opening Ceremony invites you to meet
Wong Kar Wai

Wednesday, April 2
5:00 – 6:30pm

at Opening Ceremony
35 Howard Street

Wong Kar Wai and Opening Ceremony have collaborated
on a series of limited edition t-shirts, postcards and posters
to coincide with the U.S. release of My Blueberry Nights,
released in theaters by The Weinstein Company on April 4, 2008.

Brooklyn Event

Here’s another one from the email inbox (actually right here on xanga). Looks like it’ll be an interesting talk for any people out there thinking about making the transition from good job your parents can brag about to struggling filmmaker.

From Basil:

Hi Mike,

We’ve never met, but I thought I’d let you know about an event
happening at Brooklyn Law School in NYC… thought you might be
interested in knowing about it, even though you are in LA. Maybe some
of your readers would be interested? It’s open to all..

Take care and keep up the awesome work,

Basil

=======================

The Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at Brooklyn Law
School is hosting an event on 3/25 entitled “From Firm to Film,” and I
thought that members of your group might be interested. This event is
being opened up to NYC schools, and more information can be found
below.

Please feel free to distribute as you deem fit. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

Basil Kim

President, APALSA

Brooklyn Law School

=======================

Brooklyn Law School APALSA Presents:

**From Firm to Film**

Tuesday, March 25

7:30 – 9:30 PM, Afterparty to follow.

Geraldo’s, Feil Hall

205 State Street, Brooklyn NY

Francis Hsueh (Brooklyn Law ‘02) and Steven Hahn (UVA Law ‘00) met
in the corporate world and moved away from firm law to start their own
film company (and continue to practice law on the side). They directed
and produced a documentary on Asian-Americans in NYC called “Party,”
and they recently finished their second full-length feature, “Pretty to
Think So,” which will be debuting at film festivals in LA and San
Francisco.

http://www.prettytothinkso.com/

Come learn how they combine their personal interests with a law
career, and hear how their legal backgrounds equipped them for the work
they are doing today.

Food and drinks will be provided! Open to ALL. Invite your friends!

More information about the speakers here:

http://shiftingcareers.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/lawyerfilmmaker-buddies-share-two-jobs/

Co-sponsored by: ALA, BELS, SALSA, SBA, and Residential Life

Questions? Contact apalsa@brooklaw.edu.