Filmmaker Doris Yeung (center) on the set of Motherland.
Hyphen interviews director Doris Yueng, a 15-year veteran of the film industry who received her film training from the American Film Institute. Her debut feature, Motherland, has been a labor of love for Yeung since 2003. The film centers around a Chinese American woman's quest to solve the mystery of her mother's murder. Both a thriller and a piece of social commentary, Motherland offers a view of the dark side of the immigrant experience, especially what happens when one has paid too high a price to live the American Dream.
Yeung spoke to Hyphen via Skype from Amsterdam, a place she has called home for the last ten years.
How were you able to get this film made?
The project started in 2003 in Amsterdam at the Binger Film Lab, which is similar to the Sundance Film Lab. I returned to the US after my mother's death in 2004, and this had a profound impact on me, and when I returned to Europe I started incorporating a lot of new elements into the script. The script was finished in 2007, and I sent it to people like Teddy Lee and Taro Goto, who came onboard as an associate producer.
The casting started in 2007 but I had a hard time finding suitable actors for the role. After many auditions in LA, I finally got Michelle Krusiec to play the lead role of Raffi, but she bailed out at the last moment due to a scheduling conflict, and this forced us to look outside the US. One of my producers who is a fan of Hong Kong cinema gave an idea about Francoise Yip. We met her up in Vancouver and she just blew me away after the first audition.
After Motherland, what other projects on the Chinese American experience are you working on?
Currently I am working a project that would take me back to LA. It's a film about meth that features a triptych of stories similar to Amores Perros, about different people who are connected through meth and the downfall this connection leads to. I am naturally more interested in the darker side of the American dream, because often times we hear much of the "happy" side. In order to know life, you have to know the darkness of it. So this will be a sort of a cautionary tale of the American experience.
What do you think needs to happen for more Asian American films to break into mainstream distribution?
I've been doing this for 15 years, and what I am seeing is a struggle that repeats itself every few years, and unfortunately I don't see the situation for Asian American films improving. Every few years there seem to be a breakthrough TV show or film that is about Asian Americans, but now in 2011 the landscape seems to be getting worse. Sure, there are more Asian characters in many productions, but there are less characters in a featured role. In the short term it's not going to change much, but as Asia becomes more financially attractive, more Asian American filmmakers and actors are going back to Asia to make their films in order to get a head start. I was in China recently and met my friend Chen Daming, who worked in the US as a bit-role actor in Hollywood before returning to China to direct movies. He surrounds himself with many young Asian American aspiring filmmakers and actors, as a way of fostering their growth and development as filmmakers.
It's really a fight to get Asian faces on screen, but maybe in the near future, there will be a reversal, as American films will want to have more Asian faces on the screen to appeal to the growing Asian filmgoing market.
You can catch Yeung on Friday, August 26, at the 4-Star Theatre in the Richmond District in San Francisco for the premiere of Motherland. Also, read Hyphen's review of the film here.