In college, I
co-directed a student group called The Women of Color Caucus, a branch of the
leadership council for students of color at my fairly conservative Jesuit
Catholic university in New England. We put on events that dissected the
objectification of women of color in music videos; hosted dynamic speakers on
race and femininity; sponsored an art show supporting victims of domestic
violence; led talks in dorm rooms about The Exotic “Other,” Sarah Baartman and the
abysmal results when you Google Image search “Asian women.” I wore t-shirts
that read “This is what a feminist looks like” and “I <3 my body." There
wasn’t a questionably sexist advertisement, song lyric or comment overheard in
the dining hall that didn’t make my blood boil, or incite my railing against
the patriarchal society we are stuck in. The more I learned about injustice,
racism and sexism, the more I saw it everywhere around me, and the more I
begrudged the privileged ignorance and power that men, and especially white
men, held over the state of things.
Which is why when I recently came across Debbie Lum’s film Seeking Asian Female, about a white American man’s quest to find
his perfect, exotic young bride from China over the internet (cue eye roll), it
was with measured hesitation, assurance from trusted film friends and a few
background checks on its makers before I pressed play. Why would I want to watch this older man oogle
“beautiful Chinese girls” on the internet at 2am? C’mon, that’s just gross.
Stills courtesy of the filmmaker
But thanks to Lum’s masterful meta-narrative, fully aware of the tricky waters she wades into, and the undeniably
compelling personalities we get to know on screen, Seeking Asian Female manages to be hilarious, unsettling, heartfelt
and just plain icky all at the same time, while diving headfirst into the issue
of yellow fever in a complex and character-driven way.
How could I dismiss all men
with Asian fetishes as scum when here was Steven, a hardworking 60-year old in search
of love, a sort of oddball with a “broken filter,” speaking very openly about his desire for a
Chinese woman who will cook for him and take care of him (yes! that openly)? How could I not enjoy his
goofy and sweet demeanor, or feel a pang of sympathy for him when the fantasy
disappears and materializes in the form of Sandy, a 30-year old woman from
rural China who as it turns out is a living, breathing, and independently
thinking woman? She too, speaks openly and honestly to Lum’s camera, and you feel
for her journey and alienation from anything familiar.
Stills courtesy of the filmmaker
Together, Steven and Sandy must deal with the
language barrier and financial hiccups while figuring out if they’re in a
relationship that can actually work. Lum is drawn in to serve as
relationship counselor, making her question the ethics behind her film
meditate on the ways that the filmmaking process, especially one this
can influence the outcome of the story. Is she most concerned about the
and her subjects’ story arcs, or the feelings of her new friends? Lum,
producer, director, writer and co-editor of the film, is also valuable
necessary as the vehicle through which viewers like me can see
relate to the story. Through Lum’s unlikely friendship with Steven and
the audience gains access to minds you’d never believe you want to hear
from. Steven starts off being like that guy in the grocery store who
stops you in the fruit aisle to make a strange joke about your nice
shoes (read: RUN!), and ends up being
like your weirdly verbose uncle whose opinion you value because it's at
with most things you believe in. How did Lum come to meet him?
At its core, Seeking Asian Female is a thoroughly entertaining
relationship story, dare I say romantic
comedy, and left me with a few takeaway questions to chew on. If
it works out for Steven and Sandy, does that validate his means of
If yellow fever at its base is about sexualized stereotypes, domination
power, how do you judge it when the beholder gets to know the object of
desire in a genuine way, and starts to see her with depth and agency?
Who am I to judge what
someone’s dream girl looks or acts like? Are Steven’s online dating
much worse than how my friend's filter through OK Cupid? The film does
its stake in the ground one way or another, but opens up the opportunity
real dialogue around these questions. Don’t get me wrong, I still
for every Steven there are hundreds of disgusting dudes looking for
ladies for all the wrong reasons (at which we need to holla back).
But maybe the
next time a man compliments my dark hair or asks where I’m from with a
smirk of excitement, I won’t automatically condemn him to hell. But if
he dares asks me out for sushi or, worse, a massage, then that’s it,
over. This China doll is
Before watching the full-length film, I had the privilege of meeting Lum, and asking her a few burning questions about Seeking Asian Female.
It was overwhelming and amazing. There were
some really big films there, so the fact that my small film got so much
attention is really amazing. And people really came out for the screenings! In
Austin, I was looking for Asians but I don’t think I found them. I have to
remember that in other places outside of the Bay Area, Asian Americans are much
more of a minority. But the film really speaks to people on different levels.
How did this project start?
It started as a fictional screenplay about a
white male and Asian female, and my plan was to include real life interviews
with men I found on Craigslist who had an Asian fetish. It turned out there was
just so much material with the real life men, all seeking Asian wives. With
Steven’s story, I didn’t think it was going anywhere, and when it started to,
part of me didn’t even want to film it. I feared Sandy was going to be a
stereotype, and I had assumptions of my own and didn’t want to portray that.
But my advisors convinced me to keep the cameras rolling, and Sandy turned out
to be totally different from what I ever imagined.
Asian American audiences might be turned off by the topic
of your film before even seeing it. What do you have to say to them?
It’s true. If I heard of a film about yellow
fever, I’d probably think, “how many times do I have to hear that disgusting
story?” It’s a hot button issue, but most people just glide the surface of it.
My film digs deeper. A lot of people talk about yellow fever, like in Stuff White People Like, it’s a
running joke that white guys like Asian girls, and usually it's just seen as
“oh, kind of messed up.” But Asian American women really have to deal with it.
I believe yellow fever is an integral part of Asian American identity. It’s not
always the extreme we’re dealing with like western men who go on sex tours
throughout Asia, but the more subtle exotification of Asian cultures. You can’t
get outside of that, and it was so interesting to explore in this film. Usually
when we talk about it we just get angry, but what’s that worth?
What do you want people to take away from this film? How
would you use it change the discussion around yellow fever?
I did not want to simplify the story or the
way it affects people. The film really drives discussions, and it gets so
personal that people take sides. It’s not just man vs. woman or white vs.
It’s currently an 80-minute film, and we’ll
be cutting it down to an hour for the tv broadcast. I could really see this
film being used to start conversations among ESL learners and immigrant
communities. Sandy feels so isolated, and she and Steven are low-income earners,
which makes it much harder on her transition.
What was it like directing your first feature-length
I’ve made a career editing for long-form
Asian American documentaries such as A.K.A.
Don Bonus and Kelly Loves Tony,
and worked with great people like S. Leo Chiang and Deann Borshay Liem. Now I
feel like I was spoiled having all that footage just coming to you. You learn
how hard it really is, all the different ways you can set up a shot; it was a
painful but wonderful process.
Seek for yourself:
- Seeking Asian Female will be screening
at the Los Angeles Asian
Pacific Film Festival (tonight!) Friday, May 11 at 7 pm and Saturday, May 12 at
- This is the first Asian American film festival and West Coast
premiere for the film. Click here to buy tickets and get more information.
- Seeking Asian Female will also be screening
on PBS Independent Lens during the upcoming 2012-2013 season.
- For more information go to: www.seekingasianfemale.com
- Click here to watch the trailer.