A ubiquitous presence at many Asian Pacific American film and TV events in the Los Angeles area, and accomplished filmmaker and actress herself, Elizabeth Sung died on Tuesday night. Elizabeth had acted in numerous stage, TV and film works and was a fixture of many APA shorts and feature films that have screened in APA film festivals for well three decades. She was a true champion for APA creatives.
The film she last co-starred in, FOR IZZY, had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), where the film won the grand prize for Best Narrative Feature. She was also in the Sundance favorite WHITE RABBIT starring Vivian Bang, which also screened at the LAAPFF. Although she did look like she was ailing, she was there, pounding the pavement, walking the red carpet, and punching out press interviews like it was nobody’s business. Elizabeth was an APA film advocate until the very end.
Some of my favorite roles that she has been in were usually of the Cantonese speaking and disapproving mom types like in PING PONG PLAYA with Jimmy Tsai and Roger Fan, in the coming out gay love story FRONT COVER, and her stint as Elizabeth Ho’s disapproving tiger mom in the Netlflix sitcom DISJOINTED.
Although I did not know Elizabeth well, my interactions with her had always been wonderful. We talked fondly about Hawaii (she had attended university there) and she was excited to be back there a couple of years ago to co-star in a film called PALI ROAD with Sung Kang and Tzi Ma.
But, I was impressed by her actual support of arts organizations. As an active member of Visual Communications (the presenting organization for LAAPFF), she was one of those rare Hollywood types who would actually purchase a membership and buy tickets to screenings (unlike the usual rigamarole of the “usual” Hollywood types who would ask for freebies or to crash into parties because they were thug #4 in an episode of CSI).
She was not only creating art, but she was also a patron. She recently participated in the Humans of VC campaign, providing a testimonial to promote the organization’s annual membership drive:
Elizabeth always gave back. She always supported other artists. She acted in numerous short films and did favors. She always championed young filmmakers. As a part of a film festival selection committee, I honestly think I’ve seen her in just as much films that were rejected as ones accepted. But for Elizabeth, it was part of the job as a journeyman actor.
In 1995, she was featured in the Los Angeles Times, about her work as a regular on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, but primarily about her thesis film she was directing called REQUIEM about her late brother Philip, a noted fashion designer who passed away a decade earlier, succumbing to AIDs.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, she began studying ballet at an early age and continued through her teens, despite her father’s strong opposition to any career in the arts. Desperate to experience life in the United States, Sung and her sister Diana attended college at the University of Hawaii and studied their father-approved program of hotel management. “It was a decoy for us to come to the States,” she says.
When their father died suddenly, they returned home briefly. But once back to the U.S., Sung headed for New York, where she auditioned for and was accepted at Juilliard.
Eventually, brother Philip, who was older and also had attended school in the United States, returned to China, then came back to New York, where the three Sung siblings lived together. “Philip thought it would be more inspirational to be in New York,” she recalls.
After graduation, Sung danced with the Alvin Ailey dance company for three years before a back injury sidelined her. “I was frustrated with acting work, too,” she says of a dark period in 1985. Sung took on a job in marketing, which coincided, she says, with her brother’s illness.
”The times when Philip was in and out of the hospitals is when I realized it’s going to be a tough battle,” she says.
Before Philip died, he encouraged Sung to go back to her first love, acting, which she did, returning to and making movies in her native Hong Kong. When she returned to the United States, guest-starring jobs followed, as well as a role in 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club,” where she played “the barren second wife, who gives the fake string of pearls to the young stepdaughter.”
”The Joy Luck Club,” such a significant film for Asian performers, only confirmed what Sung believes: “We need to be seen first and be accepted in roles. Then we can move toward getting a greater understanding of the differences in Asian cultures.”
Elizabeth’s life was truly cinematic.
Condolences and remembrances are popping up on social media, as this news is still fresh, but I wanted to share this post by Visual Communications archivist and long-time film curator Abraham Ferrer (FYI, it is wordy, but definitely worth a read):
Rest In Power, Elizabeth Sung. You will be deeply missed.