2012 Sundance Filmmakers: Andrew Ahn

January 20, 2012

Production still from Dol

The Sundance Film Festival is once again upon us, having officially kicked off Thursday, January 19 in Park City, UT. While the bulk of the attention is usually given to feature films, the Shorts Program has also been a cinematic treasure trove, often launching many young filmmakers onto the path of making their first features. Among this year's shorts are two Asian American filmmakers, Andrew Ahn and Kangmin Kim. Coincidentally, they are both of Korean descent and members of the same 2011 class at CalArts. Hyphen chatted with them briefly this week to learn more about their lives and their films.  

First up is Andrew Ahn, a Korean American born and raised in LA's Koreantown. The child of Asian immigrants, he went to an Ivy League school -- in his case, Brown -- to study Biology, but switched his major to English and became interested in filmmaking after taking some video production classes. Subsequently he enrolled in the MFA Film Directing program at CalArts and graduated there in May 2011. His previous short film, Andy, won the best narrative short award at the 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Dol, Ahn's Sundance short film, was originally produced as his CalArts thesis. The film follows Nick, a gay Korean American man living in LA's Koreatown with his partner Brian.  When Nick attends his baby nephew's dol, a traditional Korean first birthday party, he finds himself yearning for a life just out of reach.

Production Still from Dol

Your own family features prominently in the film Dol. How did you decide to base the story on your life and family?

Before this film I never did tell my parents that I was gay. Thus, I chose to make this movie as a way of coming out to them. When I was attending CalArts I lived at home, and living around them so closely made me want to understand them and myself. Since they were also a little hesitant about me entering the film world, I used this film to explain to them both my passion for film and my sexuality. 

Your film has a subtle but also assured observational quality. You've mentioned the Dardenne Brothers and Kelly Reichardt as influences, but I also noticed some traces of Edward Yang. Are there any other cinematic influences in your work? 

Edward Yang was definitely very inspiration, as with any other filmmakers who blur the line between documentary and fiction and who attempt brave narrative experiments. I admire Kelly Reihardt for her simplicity in storytelling, also So-Yong Kim, Andrea Arnold, and Lynn Ramsey. In general I'm attracted to a very independent social realist kind of filmmaking. 

Dol director Andrew Ahn

In my view, your film rather bravely shows the characters doing the ordinary things, such as the extended grace scene before dinner, and the fact that some of the dialogue is in Korean. Why did you structure the film around these scenes instead of more conventionally confrontal ones we would normally expect in a so-called family drama. 

These artistic choices all come down to my goal to show things simply as how they are. With the grace scene, I'm not really making a religious statement or moral judgement on Korean American families. It is simply that in my household people pray before dinner. And I'm just allowing a chance to see that. Same for the language element. I'm only embracing the reality of my life in LA Koreantown, which is that I speak Korean with my parents, English with my brother. 

What do you think about the state of Asian American cinema?

I think the problem right now is that it's hard to get Asian American audiences super excited on any particular films. It's hard to make a small Asian American film and have it succeed out of film festivals. At the same time, there are more and more quality Asian American films being made, such as last year's In The Family (see Hyphen's review). I would say we are seeing a trend emerge that's kind of similar to the French New Wave. With more Asian American filmmakers out there, soon enough distributors have to take notice.

Dol Trailer from Andrew Ahn on Vimeo.

A number of Asian American filmmakers, including So-Yong Kim and Tze Chun, have gone to Asia to get funding or stories for their movies. How about you? 

Even though my parents are Korean, I'm LA born and bred and in the near future, my interest is mostly in creating an Asian American cinema with a real Asian American point of view, not Asian or Korean. Currently I'm developing two features, one is a coming of age story about two Korean American brothers who get lost in LA for one day. Another is an erotic gay thriller set in a Korean spa in LA's Koreantown [chuckles]. 

For Dol's screening time and locations, check its page on the Sundance Festival website.