Preface: This was originally written for the SF Bay Guardian ahead of the 1999 SFIAAFF and it tackled a theme that I continue to be interested by: whither the Asian American romance? Post-Yellow or Charlotte Sometimes, the issue probably doesn't seem as important now as it did at other points in the 1990s though I doubt it's a non-issue either even in a day and age where a show like Lost can feature an Asian couple being romantic and sexual with one another. (I should note: I wrote this piece before I ever saw Eat a Bowl of Tea, otherwise I would have definitely mentioned it.)
This topic is still something I want to write more about in the future, especially from a more scholarly point of view but regardless, it remains one of the favorite things I've ever written on Asian American film. Unfortunately, the SFBG's version no longer exists but I've reprinted the entire piece below, after the jump.
Love Look Away
by Oliver Wang
In Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1962 musical/film, *The Flower Drum Song*, a young Chinese American, Wang Ta, is faced with the unenviable dilemma of choosing his wife-to-be. His father wants him to accept an arranged marriage with the demure but clever Mei Li. However, his aunt has other ideas, suggesting, "let them fall in love. That is the American way." And so Wang Ta awkwardly does, and by the end he has fallen for Mei Li - "on his own" so to say - and a double wedding of kisses, hugs and smiles brings the movie to a predictable, pat ending.
Whatever problems - and there are many - that we might have with Rodgers and Hammerstein's representation of 1950s Chinatown society, *The Flower Drum Song* is remarkable as one of the few cinematic examples where Asian Americans experience the basic pleasure of romantic love. However dramatically overwrought and ubiquitous "romance" has become in the American movie industry,it is notably missing from the 30-odd years of Asian American film making
Economic and political priorities during the 1970s/80s era of Asian American documentaries didn't include a focus on romantic love. Likewise, when family melodramas emerged in the 80s and 90s, the focus tended to be on *dys*functional relationships between Asian Americans (Wayne Wang's *Joy Luck Club* for example). Where romantic love did exist was usually reserved for interracial relationships (Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala", Mina Shum's *Double Happiness*), presumably as a way for Asian Americans (usually women) to shed the stigma of being the Orientalized Other and/or rebel against the static conservatism of their immigrant parents. Whatever the case, even as Asian American cinema expanded its horizons, *intra*-racial love was rarely part of the plan.
Explaining this dearth is complex, drawing on a collision of psychological, sociological, political and economic reasons that are understandable, but don't necessarily alleviate the alienation that some Asian Americans feel. Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña (*Who Killed Vincent Chin?*), shares, "I'd always felt cheated of Asian American romance - even as a kid. I don't remember seeing an Asian American couple kiss on screen until Michael Uno's *The Wash*. What a relief when I saw it. I was almost wondering how I'd been conceived."
This is not to desperately advocate for a "yellowized" version of *You Got Mail* in order to fulfill some primal need for romantic representation. It'd be naive to think that Asian Americans can't manage to fall in love on their own without cinematic illustration. Yet ,there is something disturbing about the relative absence of images that reflect and validate the ways that Asian Americans experience love with one another. The new market for black middle-class romance (*Love Jones*, *How Stella Got Her Groove Back*) suggests that some African American audiences are interested in seeming themselves outside of the typical, ghetto movie. For many Asian Americans though, we've grown up wondering why our own stories of love and loss never seemed captured on celluloid.
Interestingly enough, this topic of love, Asian American style, comes to an unintended fore in this year's SFIAAFF. Through a collection of shorts and features, the Festival offers some interesting points of departure for further diversifying - and complicating - the topic of Asian American romance. The most explicit example is *Ways of Dating*, a program featuring six short films/videos that deal with the trials and tribulations of Asian American relationships.
What stands out in many of the program's movies is how "natural" many of the relationships seem. The weight of identity politics initially hangs over Raymond Leung's *Yellow Fever*, especially as a gay, Chinese Englishman confronts his own Anglo-philia. However, as he opens up to the advances of his attractive Taiwanese neighbor, our protagonist emancipates himself from his internalized racism, allowing him to reciprocate his neighbor's affections without feeling overly self-conscious about being into "sticky rice" (i.e. queer Asian/Asian pairings).
More telling are the pair of video shorts produced by UC Berkeley undergraduates: Wendy Shih-Wen Lin's *It's Not My Fault* and Aram Collier/Debbie Lim's *One April Morning*. In these two movies, Asian American couples are portrayed without a hint of racial self-consciousness - relationships so normal they're almost pedestrian. Importantly though, the couples never seem encumbered by a suffocating identity politics. Whatever problems they experience aren't linked to social sources of dysfunction, but are instead couched in the mundane, everyday conflicts of miscommunication, personality differences, or just bad luck.
What all of these films end up imagining is a world where Asian Americans fall in and out of love without always having to do so in reaction to mainstream (read: white) America. While this may divert from the original intent of Asian American film to explicitly confront white racism, there is something refreshing about giving these characters the agency to explore Asian American love that is freed from social implications. Like other recent SFIAAFF selections, notably Chris Chan Lee's *Yellow* (1997) and Tajima-Peña's *My America* (1998), simply watching Asian Americans flirt, get infatuated and exchange affection takes on radical sets of meaning considering how infrequently we see these basic human experiences reflected on screen.
Beyond the explicit portrayl of Asian American romance though is also a deepening appreciation of the myriad forms love can appear in. Especially in acknowledging the Asian immigrant experience, Western ideals of love, sex and passion hold little meaning for families fighting for survivial. However, a potential place of compromise could lie with Greg Pak's mini-documentary *Fighting Grandpa*. In it, Pak tries to explore the relationship between his Korean immigrant grandparents by combing through old home movies and interviews with his relatives. Pak is motivated to find evidence of whether "[grandpa] really loved [grandma], he just didn't know how to show it." In the process, Pak shows how his grandparents' marriage suffered through wartime separation and immigrant struggle as well as the familiar themes of Asian patriarchy and cultural dispassion.
Not surprisingly, the surface picture that Pak initially finds, corroborated by his relatives, is that his grandparents had a strained relationship, absent of affection and meaningful communication. Yet, underneath this impersonal exterior, Pak finds subtle hints of a deeper love, what he describes as a "tenderness there that I could only get a glimpse of." However buried the evidence is, it relieves some of Pak's anxiety and he ends the film not with a definitive answer, but a quiet set of unspoken questions over what Asian American love can entail.
If the Festival's other films aspire to the important goal of portraying our ways of romance, *Fighting Grandpa* urges us to go beyond just on-screen kisses and love-making to explore the issue of Asian American love. The tenderness Pak finds between his grandparents may not conform to a standard of red roses and wine, but even the whisper of love he uncovers is intensely validating all the same. These selections from the SFIAAFF may not represent a blossoming of the Asian American romance, but within them, we can find the potential seeds of catharsis that promise to release Asian American love onto the screen.