2009 Movie Rewind

The year's most notable and notorious in Asian American film

April 13, 2010

WHETHER WE were at the multiplex watching Sulu, Spock and Kirk aboard the Enterprise or at one of several Asian American film festivals across the country, Asian American filmgoers had a pretty busy year. The best part? We didn’t have to endure another Rush Hour installment -- truly a blessing.

Here’s our wrap-up of Asian American films and roles that stood out, for better or for worse, in ’09.

Best Challenge to Film Maxims

Actor W.C. Fields uttered the infamous line, “Never work with children or animals,” but he had obviously never shared a stage with the stars of Children of Invention. Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu play Raymond and Tina Cheng, siblings who must fend for themselves after their single mother is arrested for unwittingly participating in a pyramid scheme. Under the deft direction of Tze Chun (who also wrote the script), these youngsters are able to convey more about the complexities of family, money and the hustle to survive than actors three times their age.

In the filmmaker’s words:

On casting Raymond and Tina: We looked at 250 kids from schools and from open casting calls, and [producer] Mynette [Louie] and I didn’t stop until we found two kids that we really fell in love with. ... The best thing about working with kids is that they are constantly making choices that are unexpected and surprising. The main thing I had to keep in mind when I was directing them was to not underestimate their abilities.

On framing the topic of livelihood through a child’s perspective: I think kids are more aware of those issues than people think. And it interests me to see the trickle-down effects of financial anxiety on children and what effect that has on their youth and upbringing.

On addressing money, class and immigrant families: In early drafts of the screenplay, I hadn’t assigned an ethnicity to the family. I just wanted to depict children left to fend for themselves after their mother gets involved in a Ponzi scheme and disappears. But, as I continued fleshing out the story, I felt that I could bring a specificity to the characters, their situation and their world if I made them Asian American. But this story really could be about a family of any immigrant background. I just chose the one that I was closest to and thought I could bring the most to as a writer and director.

On future projects: I’m reteaming with my producer Mynette Louie for my next feature film, You’re a Big Girl Now, based on my mother’s childhood growing up in a Singaporean brothel. … I have the option on a short story by Ha Jin that takes place in Flushing that I’m going to be turning into a feature screenplay. I’m also doing a science-fiction short as part of an ITVS-funded (Independent Television Service) series of science-fiction short films by emerging directors titled Futurestates. … Just trying to stay busy.

The Ka-Ching Award

Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious (the fourth installment of the illegal street-racing film franchise) earned the honors of having the best April box office opening in history, bringing in over $70 million in its first weekend domestically. Was it the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel’s voice that filled all those theater seats? We’ll just give the credit to Lin this time.

Flyest Musical

In an age where the cloyingly sweet High School Musical 3 inexplicably makes over $90 million at the box office, it’s refreshing to know that there are musicals that explore identity, home and every synonym for “fag hag” in existence. H.P. Mendoza’s Fruit Fly reunites the writer/director/composer with his Colma: The Musical star L.A. Renigen. As Bethesda, Renigen plays an adopted performance artist living the commune life in San Francisco, trying to turn her search for her biological mother and her past into art with the support of her gay BFF Windham (Mike Curtis). The songs range from poignant to delightfully profane and prove that musicals can be catchy without sacrificing substance.

In the filmmaker’s words:

On cast chemistry: Getting anything to click on a small budget is hard, but the actors were all so willing to perform and really got along. A lot of the actors came from the Center for Asian American Media, so it was a lot of fun to work with people who have already worked with each other, but never in front of the camera. Mike Curtis, who plays Windham, had seen Colma, so he knew what to expect from L.A., while L.A., I think, just knows how to put people at ease.

On reaching out to musical skeptics: I think that people end up liking stories told in song when they hear songs they don’t normally hear in musicals. I think people really attach to musicals that have a high comedic element. When people mock musicals, they usually put on some operatic voice and act out a gravely serious scene from Les Misérables or Phantom of the Opera. I think that when you watch a fun musical, you disarm those people who say that musicals take themselves too seriously.

On a hypothetical world without fruit flies: A world without fruit flies means a world where gay issues never reach the mainstream through the husbands of fruit flies, gay men only hook up in Internet chat rooms, and gay teenage boys will never go to the prom.

The Love/Hate Award

One of the most polarizing films among Asian American audiences this year was Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. While many of us were glad to see a Hmong American family share the screen with a Hollywood legend, some of us weren’t so stoked to see Clint’s character, Walt Kowalski, spout slurs like “gook” and “zip perhead” 85 times per minute while stoically protecting the Vang Lor family from a gang of Hmong thugs. Does the sweet Asian family teach Clint to love in exchange for his grizzled heroism? You betcha. Plus, they bring him homemade dumplings!

Most Ambitious Debut

Most first-time directors are advised to keep it simple: Simple plot plus simple locations equals less room for complete and utter disaster. Lee Isaac Chung kept the storyline of his debut feature, Munyurangabo, simple, but he had loftier aspirations in other areas -- including shooting on location in Rwanda, in the native Kinyarwanda language and with nonprofessional actors. Simple enough, right? The film, which follows two young friends (one Tutsi, one Hutu) on a personal mission years after the Rwandan genocide, won raves on the independent festival circuit, as did the first film of another Asian American director who chose to go international -- Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Spanish-language film Sin Nombre, shot on location in Mexico.

In the filmmaker’s words:

On his approach to addressing the Rwandan genocide: I refused the notion that every audience must be a Western audience or a middle-class audience, the way most films about Africa are made today. Instead, I thought the film should be made for a Rwandan audience. This meant that any explication or re-creation of the genocide was not as urgent as a film on the aftermath, that is, a film about present-day Rwanda.

On potential skepticism about Munyurangabo: Before going to Rwanda, I was an unknown filmmaker -- which isn’t very different today. I think it was more surprising for people to see the project after it was completed, since not many people paid attention to my plan to make the film. There has been healthy skepticism on individuals who read about or hear about the project now -- I think this is a great thing.

On bucking tradition: I do not enter any film with a particular Asian American agenda. ... I am now in development of a noir film, South Wind, starring a Hong Kong actor. Although South Wind will star an Asian actor, I find that none of the scenes are about Asian or Asian American identity but a broader concept of identity and image. Perhaps I am more interested in working beyond the categories of identity that we traditionally create.

On future projects: South Wind [is] a kind of nod to the film noir genre. Sam Anderson, my co-writer, and I are writing another film, The Zoo, a Kafka-esque story about a family placed in a zoo, which may be filmed in Germany in the German language.

Best Film Featuring Bai Ling on Fire

Crank 2: High Voltage features a story as old as time. In the first Crank, hitman Chev must keep his adrenaline up to keep from dying after a poisoning. But wait! In the sequel, a Chinese triad has stolen Chev’s heart because its leader, Poon Dong (played by David Carradine, naturally), needs a new ticker himself. Chev chases Chinese gangsters to get it back. Eventually, Bai Ling’s character catches on fire. Who says there are no good movie ideas anymore?

Best Way to Trick Us into Seeing a Movie about Love

Some people think comedian/actress/performance artist Charlyne Yi is hilarious. Others can sum up her work in half a word: “Wha...?” But in Sundance hit Paper Heart, Yi is endearing as both co-screenwriter and star of a half-fiction, half-documentary film that asks, “Will Charlyne ever believe in love?” Interviews with real-life folks across the country, illustrated by handmade puppet montages, are woven into the story of the budding romance between Yi and actor Michael Cera. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but seeing a movie about love not featuring a woman clawing her way to the altar is pretty darn refreshing.

Most Controversial

Asian Americans rallied the troops this year to protest offensive films, most notably the casting behind Dragonball Evolution (featuring white actor Justin Chatwin as hero Goku), the racialized casting practices behind M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the roles played by comedian Ken Jeong in two films. Jeong’s roles as an effeminate Asian gangster in The Hangover and as the target of a beat-down by white coworkers who reference Pearl Harbor in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard have some wondering about the choices some Asian American actors are making and when offensiveness is justified by comedic value.

Sylvie Kim is Hyphen’s film editor. Her last article was about Asian American indie filmmakers who distribute their films through the Internet.

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Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at www.sylvie-kim.com and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.