About a month ago I got a call from my good friend Quentin that our little indie film SHOPPING FOR FANGS from back in the days was going to be screening at a film festival as part of its retrospective series along with Rea Tajiri’s STRAWBERRY FIELDS, Michael Aki and Eric Nakamura’s SUNSETS, and Chris Chan Lee’s YELLOW.
The four films have since been dubbed by some as the “Asian American New Wave of 1997”.
To me it was a point of entrance into something I never thought I’d get a chance to be a part of and since then has played a huge role in shaping my perspective as not only as a filmmaker but as a person. So I thought it would be interesting to get in touch with the gang twelve years later and ask them what they took away from the experience.
Thinking back on the year 1997, I can only think “wow.” Like all experiences, there was the good and bad, but overall – what a year! We had worked pretty hard to get our “dream” project completed and to finally see it premiere and ultimately travel with it for the next two years, well, that was pretty cool. Personally, at that time in my life, I had never left the state, so if SUNSETS is a coming of age story, then the SUNSETS tour was a coming of age experience for myself, now whether or not I was ready to see and learn all that was to come, well, that is another story……..
— Michael Aki
Not all of us became Justin Lin. Even Justin Lin didn’t become the Justin Lin most of you know until much later. This is almost funny to say, but in 1997, I think we all had a glimmer of hope. Asian American film as a genre? A future film deal? The next Spike Lee? Distribution? Anything? I felt like we were actually the center of the universe – and in Asian American land, we were. Being part of it was a curse for sure, but also a blessing.
What I did get out 1997 was an insane education, and chance to travel to different cities, including NYC, Chicago, and Toronto. These trips were part of my knowledge base of Asian America, first hand. At the same time, all of us filmmakers were sort of jet setting and meeting up. I made new friends everywhere, and feel miraculously connected to the other 1997 filmmakers. QL, JL, RT, CL, and my cousin Mike.
Did I personally make a difference? Was I part of the start of a modern movement of Asian American features? Yes. I actually believe in both of those points. The “new” idea of films not needing to be about Asian American identity, but still made by an Asian American? Yes, I was doing that back then too. Yet I quickly learned that making a name and a powerful career in film is as tough or tougher than being a professional Asian American athlete.
If you want to make it and go “big,” you’ll need tons of backing right away (from all sort of folks, not only Asian Americans) because you’re talented and charismatic in exactly the right ways, or else you’re going to struggle for a decade before you can make another feature with someone else’s bank. Even then, you’ll have a lot of attention during “your year,” and by the next, you’ll probably be gone and nearly forgotten. It happened to me. Soon after the 1997 hype went away, and us 6 “filmmakers” all made short films for the program called, Obits, I felt my education and efforts could be served in
other mediums. I wasn’t willing to fight it out for the business of cinema, but making a film gave me the focus and a stronger vision to do something else-Giant Robot.
Today, I still meddle with film in the lightest ways. I think about it more than I do it, and with what little patience I have, I mostly Flip Cam my cat for Youtube. I do know that I can still put together a story, and I can still shoot. Hopefully something or someone will piss me off enough to do it all again.
— Eric Nakamura
It is utter hell to make a feature and it was utter hell to make this one… still I am extremely proud of this film and the fact that I brought this wonderful angry, fierce, vulnerable Japanese American heroine to the screen (thank you Suzy Nakamura– you committed to taking her on)
Last night watching Sunsets, I was struck at all of us telling these stories of that awkward and painful transition point between adolescence and young adulthood. So poignant. Most of us were just a few years beyond this point. I feel like I can finally really ‘see’ these films for what they are and for their intent. I think its an important chapter in ‘Asian American” filmmaking to add these stories to the ongoing dialog of experiences and tales of what identity looked like at this particualr moment in time. I just want to say ‘congratulations’ to all of us….
I ‘ll have more to say later, but that’s the beginning….
— Rea Tajiri
I recall the world premiere of our screenings at the 1997 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival being an exciting occasion, in every sense of the word. I was there with my first feature, Yellow, a coming of age comedy/drama about a group of Asian American high school kids. The festival staff pulled the filmmakers together for interviews & publicity photos to highlight the advent of four Asian American features premiering on the same year. There were six filmmakers in this group: Quentin Lee & Justin Lin (Shopping for Fangs), Rea Tajiri (Strawberry Fields), Michael Aki & Eric Nakamura (Sunsets), and myself (Yellow). Every time I checked the box office seemed to be busy – our screenings were selling out well in advance. Our prints for Yellow were still “wet” from the film lab in Burbank, as my editor Kenn had just thrown the prints into his car trunk the day of our screening and hauled them up the freeway to S.F. within the hour leading up to our world premiere. There was tremendous electricity in the theater – every seat filled, cast & crew in attendance – and by god, the film was in sync. For weeks on end we had had persistent audio sync problems and we never knew for certain that the problem had been fixed until screening that night before a paying audience.
I remember the response being so strong that the festival kept adding additional screenings of all of our films. It seemed that hours later we’d invariably get the news: “Congratulations, the screening we added is already sold out…”
The experience in San Francisco was the beginning of a long, strange year attending other film festivals. The six of us saw a lot each other on the fest circuit. The excitement continued as our films seemed to be met with lots of interest and sold out crowds. Strange because, inevitably we were always asked, “So what do you think this means? Do you think there’s a future for Asian American Cinema?” It was always a tough question to answer. And still is.
My answer, in a nutshell, was yes. Without a doubt that answer came embedded with a degree of naivete. What we were doing wasn’t without precedent – there had been APA features and many landmark leading Asian American performances before our films, but what we were doing was definitely a little different than what had come before. I had people telling me, even while I was making the film, that because of the Asian-American-centric content, “You realize Chris, this film will never even make it to the theater.” It’s a good thing for delusional optimism, as Yellow did eventually get a theatrical release. But these issues were always in the back of my mind… I mean, I sure hoped there would be a growing audience for APA films…. there had better be!
There have been many important accomplishments and milestones in APA filmmaking since our films of 1997. And each of these achievements have led to a broader presence of APAs in American media as evidenced on network television. A lot of the old problems remain, and I won’t really go into it too much here – e.g. the types of roles typically given to APAs, what kinds of films Asian American writers and directors are expected to make, etc. But the real challenge today is bigger than all of these issues.
Right now I’m sitting here at my computer looking at this can of worms I just opened. Do I believe there will continue to be more Asian American representation in American cinema, yes of course. But filmmakers can’t really survive on the primary objective of going out to make “Asian American film”. I have always seen myself as a filmmaker first, and part of my identity is that of an Asian American. A mission to go out and make “Asian American Cinema” is not inherently sustainable. The reason why I write films that happen to feature APA characters is because of however I may relate to the characters or situations. If you have film that features predominantly APA characters, you can expect one challenge to be that a large number of Americans feel that the film was not meant or made for them, and will dismiss it in an instant. Nevermind that APAs go to see films with no Asians all the time. That’s just the way it is in our society. As a filmmaker, you have to come up with a compelling reason to make enough people want to see your film to get it into the theaters, and then hopefully to fill seats. It might be cool in LA or NY to be Asian, but for the most part the rest of America is nowhere near there yet. And there are no guarantees on the home front either. I remember when I was promoting Yellow, I was invited to be interviewed on a radio talk show about independent film in New York City. The host was a young Asian American. As the interview went underway, she began to rip me apart in a one-way rant about how my film was an inaccurate representation of Asian Americans, and utilizing very academic language with a prepared critique, she totally lambasted the racial overtones and events of my film. Characterizing the Korean-American shopkeeper as a stereotype, and insisting that Korean and African-American racial tensions as represented in the film didn’t exist in reality. She gave me little time to respond before cutting me off and moving on to her next guest. I was shellshocked to say the least. After 15 years of growing up and working at my parents’ inner city grocery store, and having seen my family’s shop destroyed during the LA riots, then having gone to film school and somehow managing to make a semi-autobiographical film with a hard-earned $150,000 after five years of shopping my script around to anyone who would listen- this fellow Asian American basically dismissed my entire life experience in the span of five minutes. After the radio show, me and the guests stood around the host as she passed out her business card and invites to some event to everyone except me. It was a glorious moment of independent filmmaking that I will never forget.
Today I’m seeing a lot of fellow filmmakers-that-happen-to-be-Asian-American having challenges garnering attention for their films. Now remember- I’m not talking about short form films. The original question was specifically regarding bringing Asian American feature films into the ranks of films appearing in commercial theaters, which seems, in our world, to signify a sort of arrival into our popular culture lexicon.
It seems that every time a new Asian American feature makes it to the unlikeliest of all scenarios – the starting gate of a theatrical release – they must virtually re-invent the wheel to get any kind of attention for their movie. You turn around, and this isn’t just happening to APA films, but pretty much to everybody with anything that can be characterized as a true independent film. Nowadays, more than ever, the vast majority of films that can make it in a theatrical environment have to have mainstream appeal and the marketing muscle of a major studio. With the development of the internet and other new technologies, there are just too many things competing for the attention and dollars of everybody else. Years back, if you wanted to see anything different you pretty much went to the arthouse or independent theater. This segment has been blown up & scattered by the internet, cable, dvd, gaming consoles, etc. Today, if you have niche product you’re not just in a crowded room, you’re packed in a convention center with no air conditioning across the way from countless satellite lecture halls and sidebars. And there are ten guys outside parked in the red zone with their tailgates open passing out free stuff. So independent feature filmmakers that are working in different modes have to become increasingly innovative and thereupon take on additional risks in getting word out about their film, not to mention getting audiences to actually show up and pay ten or fifteen bucks at the box office. Just check your preferred social networking site right now and choose from one of dozens of today’s choices. And it’s not just about getting a few people to see these independent, non-mainstream films, but about making it a sustainable and viable venture so that there can be more in the future.
And how do you make a real “movement” when everybody’s attention is disbursed in different directions, across so many different platforms?
This was supposed to be two paragraphs. I’m shoveling the worms back into the giant can right now, and hand writing “Asian American Cinema” on the giant, greasy label. Indie filmmakers are obviously navigating through growing pains of new technology, marketing challenges, and the present economic environment. But as with any kind of change, there will always be new opportunities. Ultimately, I think the original question will become irrelevant as time marches on. The films that are gonna make it to the theaters are the ones that make money. That will never change. With immigration and globalization, people will gradually become more open and likely, somehow invested or personally connected to other subcultures & experiences. Yeah, even all those people milling around Walmart in the stretch pants. I’m not gonna worry about it too much. I’m just going to keep making movies about people and ideas that matter to me. Because I’m a filmmaker, that happens to be Asian-American.
— Chris Chan Lee
SHOPPING FOR FANGS
SHOPPING FOR FANGS was a work of pure innocence and raw passion. With a little under $50,000, we canned a feature without any consideration of the market and audience. We simply wanted to make an Asian American film with our own perspectives that have not been seen before. At that point, we had only made student short films. FANGS was our bold venture to the then revered 35MM and a test of our novice filmmaking skills. Could we actually make a feature? Looking back fondly at the movie now, I see FANGS as our first footprints into the feature filmmaking world-a step inevitable, memorable and without regret.
— Quentin Lee
Looking back now, the ’97 experience really helped me understand the true meaning of community. Two years earlier I had just finished my very first film, a ten minute student production called SOYBEAN MILK. It along with Quentin’s short MATRICIDE was invited to NAATA’s (now CAAM) Asian American film festival in San Francisco.
As we drove up north to my first ever film festival, I couldn’t help but be full of pride and excitement, ready to join my ‘peeps’- my community. We arrived just as PICTURE BRIDE (the opening night film) got started at the Kabuki Theater. As participating filmmakers, we were comp’ed tickets in the balcony. I still remember sitting there in awe, taking it all in. But as the lights came on, it was a different story. Right away I was hearing sniping comments all around me about the film and Kayo, the filmmaker. “It’s alright”, I thought, everyone was entitled to their own opinion. But what shocked me was that these were the same people later at the after party kissing ass about what an amazing film it was. Sure filmmakers are an insecure and often competitive bunch regardless of their backgrounds, but it was still hard for my young and naïve self to process.
A few months later around the holidays I got a call from Quentin. Unbeknownst to me, he had submitted a rough idea I had for a film along with his to the Canada Council (Quentin is Canadian. Go Canada!!!) and we were awarded 40 thousand dollars to make the film! I couldn’t believe it. 40k might as well have been 40 mil, it was by far the most money I’d been associated with at that point.
So we set out to make our film. It was going to be an uncompromising and empowered film by two Asian Americans of vastly different backgrounds and taste. We were going to apply historical, genre, and formal film elements to help us tell a story with characters that happen to be Asian American without having to explain their existence. I wouldn’t say SHOPPING FOR FANGS was a reaction to the perception of what people thought an Asian American film had to be, but at the same time we were aware of it.
As production began we very quickly felt the pinch. Filmmaking back then was not like now. 35mm stock was expensive along with everything that came with it. And of course Quentin, Dan and I wrote probably the most expensive 40k indie film ever. Along with some action, we had effects, hair issues, and tons of locations with extras. Since we had no money to pay for a crew we recruited our friends and if they didn’t know how to do their job we’d try to train them to use the equipment. It was truly the Ed Wood style. If we thought we got the shot in one take, the motto was “move on!” And I have to say, one of the big things I really enjoyed amidst all the haste of production was the actors. It was such a pleasure to work with a group of people that not only were there because of their passion for the project but had the understanding of the craft to execute it. Somehow with everyone’s hard work we were able to can enough footage to tell a story. But as we finished the grueling process we found out that was the fun part.
Distribution and exhibition have always been the ultimate obstacle for any independent film, and it was no different for us. I’m sure all four films went through the same channels such as Sundance submissions, distributor screenings, and anything that would potentially draw attention and all ended up at- yes, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an honor to be a part of such an amazingly run and historic film festival. But the truth was that no film had ever been acquired by a major studio out of Asian American film festivals so we were all in a bit of limbo. And from my previous experiences at Asian American film festivals, I was wary at best of the journey ahead.
When we arrived in San Francisco we were immediately escorted to an interview session with the other four filmmakers. It was awkward at first for me. But as our journey progressed, I could not have been more wrong about my outlook. Even though we were very different people, it was clear that we all made the films that we wanted to make and with that carries an unsaid level of respect amongst all of us because let’s face it, you don’t make Asian American films as a logical choice. You make an Asian American film because fuck level playing field, lack of representation, blah blah blah, you do it because you simply want to. Whether it’s listening to Rea elegantly articulate her reasons and her approach to her art in a radio interview that we were sure was broadcasting to no one; having a beer with Chris to talk about what the hell we were going to do to be able to be filmmakers in the future and make enough money to pay rent; or looking over at Michael and Eric laugh at me as I got into a heated debate with some douchebag in Chicago about the use of the BMW in our film and how that did not demean all Asian American women, I was loving every second of it.
Sure we got our asses kicked at times and some people sniped at us, but we also met some amazing people and were there for each other when things weren’t so rosy. And I think it was somewhere on my 4 a.m. White Castle run in Chicago with Eric and Michael I realized that it was unfair and absurd of me to unconditionally deem a group of people of similar ethnicity a community. A community has to be built on a shared experience. A community is earned. And that’s what the ’97 experience gave me.
— Justin Lin