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Asian Movies Take Flight : Filmmakers Making Move Into the Mainstream

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Edward Iwata, formerly a free-lance writer based in Palo Alto, is a business reporter for the Orange County Register

The dragon takes on a thousand forms. Infinite in metamorphosis, it dives deep, flies high, meanders, coils, leaps and takes flight. --From “Shoot for the Contents,” a film by Trinh Minh-ha

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Twelve years ago in Manhattan, a handful of film devotees trudged through the cold winter air to a downtown loft in the TriBeCa district. A new independent movie called “Chan Is Missing” was showing that night.

The film buffs settled into creaky old chairs as the low-budget feature began. To their surprise, the film had humor, soul, vision, complexity--qualities missing in many Asian-American works at the time. The feature was made by Wayne Wang, a young director from Hong Kong.

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“Wayne was a nobody here--we didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Renee Tajima, a New York filmmaker and a free-lance media critic for the Village Voice. “When the movie ended, I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘My God, that was great!’ We knew we had seen something special. It signaled the future for Asian-Americans in the media arts.”

Whether it actually did signal a new future or not is still subject to debate. Hollywood’s mainstream remained largely aloof.

But like the mythical Chinese dragon, Asian-American media artists are constantly changing and evolving.

Wang is now an independent director and a filmmaker on the verge of mainstream fame. His “Chan Is Missing,” made for $25,000, became a critical success and a big draw in art houses. At 43, he is a veteran of several films: “Dim Sum,” “Slamdance,” “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “Life Is Cheap.”

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With the help of producers Oliver Stone and Janet Yang, author Amy Tan and screenwriter Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), he has just finished directing the film version of Tan’s bestseller “The Joy Luck Club,” from Tan and Bass’ screenplay, in San Francisco and Shanghai. It’s scheduled to open this fall, starring Tamlyn Tomita (“Karate Kid II” and “Come See the Paradise”), Rosalind Chao (TV’s “MASH” and the feature “1,000 Pieces of Gold”) and an all Asian-American cast.

Whereas only a few filmmakers of Asian descent could be found in the United States two decades ago, today there are scores of new faces. They range from recent immigrants to fifth-generation Americans, from baby-faced film school graduates to guerrilla video artists, from experimental artists to Academy Award contenders.

In Los Angeles, Asian-American film will be celebrated during the annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival, today through May 23, sponsored by the media arts center Visual Communications and the UCLA Film & Television Archives. More than 40 feature films and documentaries will be screened at various sites in Los Angeles, says Abe Ferrer, exhibition coordinator for Visual Communications.

Two years ago, Berkeley filmmaker Steve Okazaki won an Oscar for “Days of Waiting,” a documentary short. Since the mid-1980s, several Asian-American filmmakers--Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “Salaam Bombay!”), Okazaki (“Unfinished Business”), Renee Tajima and Christine Choy (“Who Killed Vincent Chin?”), Lise Yasui (“Family Gathering”), Arthur Dong (“Sewing Woman”) and Michael Uno (“The Silence”)--have had their works nominated for Oscars in various categories.

In the past decade, many documentaries and features by Asian-Americans have been shown on PBS and the art-house circuit, including Peter Wang’s “A Great Wall,” Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto’s “1,000 Pieces of Gold” and Emiko Omori’s “Hot Summer Winds.”

At major film festivals and other industry showcases, critics and audiences have praised works by Trinh Minh-ha (“Shoot for the Contents”) and new directors Srinivas Krishna (“Masala,” not to be confused with Nair’s “Mississippi Masala”) and Gregg Araki (“The Living End”).

“There’s a new maturity,” says Linda Mabalot, executive director of the Little Tokyo-based Visual Communications. “We’re developing our own vision, our own aesthetic.”

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In corporate Hollywood, a new wave of young Asian-Americans is starting to influence business and creative decisions. More than 40 or 50 work in junior executive positions in studios and production companies, says Fritz Friedman, vice president of publicity at Columbia TriStar Home Video.

A sampling of top players: Richard Sakai, president of Gracie Films; Janet Yang, a vice president at Oliver Stone’s Ixtlan Productions; Teddy Zee, executive vice president at Columbia Pictures; Chris Lee, senior vice president at TriStar Pictures; Scott Sassa, president of Turner Entertainment, and Bonni Lee, president at Geffen Films.

“Our early successes are proof that your ethnicity does not necessarily hold you back,” says Friedman, whose parents are Filipino and Jewish. “At the same time, there certainly are not enough Asian-Americans and other ethnic groups in management.”

Last year, Friedman and independent producer Wenda Fong formed the Coalition of Asian/Pacifics in Entertainment, a network of 200 Asian-Americans in film, television and music. Their goal, Friedman says, is to improve the status of Asian-Americans in those fields.

Despite the progress, obstacles are everywhere for the filmmakers. “The climate isn’t too sympathetic to us,” Steve Okazaki says.

Visual Communications’ Mabalot agrees, adding that filmmakers have been hurt by the recession, by conservative attacks on public funding of the arts and by the cultural biases of white executives and programmers.

For independent filmmakers, financing remains the worst problem. In California, Visual Communications and the National Asian-American Telecommunications Assn. in San Francisco get by each year on budgets of about $300,000 to $600,000, depending on government funding.

“We’ll always be in a semi-state of turmoil,” said James Yee, executive director of NAATA, which recently served as host of a weeklong film festival in San Francisco.

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“Luckily, young filmmakers aren’t letting that determine their creativity.”

Clearly the new media artists are flourishing. For one, they no longer feel shackled to the documentaries that were needed two decades ago, when few films existed on Asian-American topics.

“In the past, our films had to be serious and political,” says Arthur Dong, a producer at KCET Channel 28 and the director of “Forbidden City, U.S.A.,” a breezy documentary about an old Chinese nightclub in San Francisco. “Those films stayed in the community and didn’t go further. Now we have to start expanding, mainstreaming, letting the larger population know we exist.”

But how, ponders Wayne Wang, can Asian-American filmmakers appeal to new audiences without compromising or selling out? “None of us wants to be Charlie Chan,” he says, alluding to the stereotypical movie detective.

In “Moving the Image,” the provocative title essay in a recent UCLA anthology about Asian-American cinema, Renee Tajima observes that Asian-American filmmakers have improved greatly in technical ability and narrative strength through the 1980s. She wonders, however, whether they have they lost their “cultural voices” along the way.

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Some of the new artists, rather than seek their own voices, mimic Western or Asian film styles. Or much of the work is amateurish, didactic or unimaginative, say several critics and filmmakers. “There should be a ban on video artists trying to subvert the ‘Suzy Wong’ and ‘Flower Drum Song’ stereotypes,” moans one director.

Other filmmakers shun the multicultural or Asian-American label, wanting to be judged solely on their merits. “You can trap yourself by only producing work that speaks to a certain audience,” says Roddy Bogawa, a young experimental filmmaker raised in Los Angeles and living in New York City. “I want mobility. I want to set my own parameters.”

Nonetheless, Bogawa’s first feature, an expressionistic film called “Some Divine Wind,” deals with racial identity. Its protagonist, a young man of mixed parentage, is shocked to learn that his white father helped bomb his Japanese mother’s village during World War II.

“Growing up in homogenous, suburban L.A., I repressed the idea of ethnicity, the idea that I was different,” Bogawa says. “But now I find notions of identity creeping into my work in odd ways.”

All agree that Asian-American media artists long ago transcended the Dragon Lady and kung fu stereotypes. Now they’re creating more truthful images and complex portrayals of Asian-Americans in what filmmaker Loni Ding calls “celebrations of ordinary people.”

Some scholars believe that these artists are shaping a bicultural, cinematic language that is as bold and dynamic as the work of the best black, gay and experimental artists. Often this film style merges Western influences with a Buddhist or Taoist sensibility. A filmmaker might be influenced by European avant-garde art and the imagery of Japanese woodblock prints. Or the filmmaker may try to blend and break out of genres from film noir to musicals to Expressionism.

“The best work now is on the borderline, on the margin of the unknown, where the audience is constantly changing,” says filmmaker Trinh Minh-ha, a professor at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. “Hybridity is no longer a liability.”

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Some Asian-American filmmakers, waving the banner of economic and political independence, have picked up cues from their feminist and black counterparts.

“We need to seize power in the industry,” says Elle Chan, a production assistant at Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael and the director of “Chink Chicks/American Women,” a hilarious look at media stereotypes of Asians. “I don’t have much faith that an industry controlled by white males will change our images very soon.”

In the end, Asian-American filmmakers must wrestle with universal concerns of all media artists: Storytelling and thematic content. Visual style and technique. Creative and financial control.

“We really mirror the diversity in America,” Tajima says. “But now we need to look at the larger question: What is the American aesthetic?”


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