needing more than luck?
Even though I've enjoyed this weekend, hanging out with my daughter while my wife takes a much needed/earned vacation, I'm a little sad I'm not up in San Francisco for this year's Asian American film festival. This is the first time in 11 years that I won't be attending and it is, by far, one of my all-time favorite events.
That said, part of me is glad I'm not there because I feel out of the Asian American film loop at the moment and I think being at the fest would just remind me of how disconnected I am right now. It's not for lack of interest but lack of time. I certainly want to get back into the mix, not the least of which is so I can update this site.
In terms of a late pass, I recently became aware of the mini-controversy over Fay Ann Lee's new feature film, Falling For Grace, a romantic comedy/Cinderella story (you can see the trailer at the link before). I say "mini" because, though the internet has a tendency to inflate things beyond their actual size, this film has mapped onto so few people's radar, I don't think you can really call it a major dust-up.
The main sides are represented by the Fighting 44s on one side and Reappropriate's Jenn Fang on the other. The main crux of it turns around (drum roll): Asian female/White male interracial romance. Call it Asian American gender relations catnip.
In Falling For Grace, Grace Yang, an upwardly mobile Chinese American investment banker is mistaken (by White people, natch) for the scion of the Shanghai Tang family, ends up meeting a very eligible (White) bachelor (modeled on JFK, Jr. no less) and hilarity and romance ensue. Presumably.
The Fighting 44s, self-appointed defenders of Asian American masculinity, not surprisingly, crap all over the film on premise alone: "More brainwashing material for Asian girls to chew on."
Their stance doesn't surprise me since it springs from the the same kind of reactionary, masculine politics that certain Asian American men have carried as cross, shield and sword since the 1960s. I'm sympathetic to parts of it - namely the critique of how absent Asian men are in popular American media - but the ways in which it's oft-used to bludgeon Asian American women (and curiously, feminists) seems self-defeating at best and retro-grade patriarchal at worst.
I'm more surprised at Fang's decision to support the film despite the fact that she - like mostly everyone - hadn't actually seen the film yet. I usually find her analyses to be nano-blade sharp, with plenty of nuance and insight to go around, but here, she stakes her defense on a curious argument:
- " it occurs to me that if we are to begin challenging the perception that Asian Americans consume like Whites (thus undermining efforts to create Asian American-oriented media), we need to demonstrate a willingness to support Asian American-created art and film. So, I hope that regardless of how you feel about the AF/WM coupling in this film, you will take the time to see this movie (and give it a chance to speak for itself), and thus help support the overall cause of funding more Asian American-produced independent media."
This is something I discussed, along with my friend and colleague Hua Hsu, back in 2003 when Better Luck Tomorrow came out and there was that massive grassroots push to get Asian Americans out to see the film. But BLT was hardly the first or last film to make this pitch and I've always been skeptical of the underlying logic.
In essence, it seems to suggest that whether the film is good or bad, people should see it as a way to empower the director and producers and presumably, if this takes off like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it will be one more step in the empowerment of Asian Americans to take control of our own media images. Distill it down from there and what you basically get is, "support it because it's Asian American" and that seems like a remarkably reductive logic - no less so than arguing that one should support Obama simply because he's Black and thus, might help reform failing federal civil rights legislation.
But shelf the ideological problems for moment and consider a few pragmatic ones:
Demographically, Asian Americans rarely have wielded the kind of clout to - alone - make any film project "successful." That's why - as Justin Lin has said in many interviews - Hollywood studios rarely even bother to break AAs down into a separate viewer bloc; we're usually lumped in with Whites. The most successful Asian American films of the last 26 years - from Chan Is Missing to Joy Luck Club to Better Luck Tomorrow - have always depended on the patronage of non-Asian viewers in order to ensure that success. I'm not claiming AA viewers make no difference at all; by filling seats, we're adding to the overall box office totals, but it's hardly the case that, as a demographic bloc, our support is really the one that matters most. The mainstream success of practically any Asian American film I can think of depends on attracting a large number of non-AA viewers.
Second, even in the case where you have a "success," the fruits it bears are questionable. Wayne Wang's early career is particularly instructive here. With the exception of the uniformly brilliant Chan Is Missing, Wang's next three American films were all family melodramas: Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl of Tea and of course, The Joy Luck Club. Wang's success - both critically and commercially - with those films, I would suggest, played an important role in how future Asian American features would get greenlit/funded. I don't think it's a coincidence that throughout the remainder of the 1990s and well into this decade, most of more prominent Asian American features you saw follow were also family melodramas (at least in part, if not wholly), from Mina Shum's Double Happiness to Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet to Chris Chan Lee's Yellow to Gene Cajayon's The Debut to Alice Wu's Saving Face. There are many, many more one could name and personally, if I never see one more Asian American family melodrama come down the pipeline, it will be too soon (but that's an essay for another time).
Third, if we look to other examples, it's not very auspicious. My Big Fat Greek Wedding earned over $100,000,000 - far more successful and profitable than any comparable Asian American feature but I haven't seen that translate into a sea-change in Greek American representations (not that I follow them that closely though) and while it's likely helped Nia Vardalos to get more of her scripts noticed, she's far from some Greco American Spielberg (or even Spike Lee).
Again, it goes back to the consumer demographic. Tyler Perry has become a major force as a director and writer because his films consistently make money off of a viewer base that actually wields clout: African Americans. Likewise, I don't think we're far away from seeing a new generation of Latino American filmmakers come up in a big way. But Greek Americans won't make or break a film, let alone fuel a community media movement. Asian Americans may be larger in numbers but certainly, it's a disjointed community and even with 100% support (which won't exist anyway), we're talking...5-7%? That's good enough for phone companies to call my house, confusing my JA wife by trying to sell her long distance service in Mandarin. But that's not going to attract much interest by Sonyfoxwaltwarnerviaelectric to see after our needs for diverse representation.
I do agree that as more Asian American filmmakers, producers and movie execs rise in stature and influence, this could have some positive benefits for the community though, once again, the past reveals some uneven results. Wang, for example, was able to parlay the success of Joy Luck Club into a healthy career for himself but notably, up until this year, with his two new films based on the short stories of Oakland's Yiyun Li, he stopped making films dealing with explicit "Asian American content" for nearly 15 years (J.Lo romantic comedy though? Check!) I don't begrudge Wang that - by the time he made Smoke, Wang had made four significant Asian American films already so and creatively, I could see why he'd want to move onto something different.
Better Luck Tomorrow gave Justin Lin's career an immeasurable push, allowing him to direct two Hollywood flicks and he was able to parlay that back into his recent Asian American comedic feature, Finishing the Game. And, as he has noted, it was only because he was helming the movie that allowed him to cast Sung Kang in FF3, giving the movie some added "color" and an interesting Asian American anti-hero. However, the film has been rightfully criticized for having fairly limited portrayals of Asian women. One step forward, one step back?
My point is that we certainly need more Asian Americans in positions of media power but the road to greater diversity in our representations is likely to be fraught with bumps and dips along the way. And so this brings me back to the crux of my long-winded polemic:
You need to first start with a "good" film. That's obviously subjective but what I sense in Fang's argument is that the film's formal merits - narrative, acting, production design, etc. - are secondary. She asks: "how will we get funding for quality storylines if we won't even demonstrate our interest in films with Asians in front of and behind-the-scenes?" One of the commenters of her blog adds: "Until Asians become part of the mainstream film making, we should not be so critical of their work."
This may be classic cart vs. horse but shouldn't the more important question first be: does the actor or filmmaker deserve our interest to begin with? I'm not talking about Falling For Grace or the people who worked on it - I just mean any film. I can't see how blind support - absent any sense of quality control, let alone critical evaluation - is a helpful, progressive strategy.
My sister-in-law, who is Asian American, is a working actress and as supportive as I am for her and her career, that doesn't mean I automatically would cosign on any project she does, independent of considering its content or qualities (as I would with any project). Case in point: she was Fook Mi in Austin Powers: Goldmember, ok? I admit, when that movie pops up on television, I have that moment of, "oh cool, it's Di!" when she first shows up but that's then followed by, "man, I know this is Austin Powers and what not but the Japanese schoolgirl twins feel kind of icky to me." If I'm not about to cut the godmother of my daughter that degree of blind slack, I'm sure as hell not about to rally the community around any film project without some level of evaluation (let alone one with a weak trailer and middling reviews).
The last point I want to make here is that if you look at the increase in the quantity of Asian American feature filmmaking, it is remarkable. I was on the film festival committee for the S.F. Int'l Asian American Film Festival from 2000 through 2006 and just in that time alone, the number of AA feature films has increased exponentially - so much so that in any given year - especially now - the number of feature film submissions to the festival is staggering.
Let me be very blunt in saying this: the vast majority of those submitted films are flat-out terrible. We're talking bad enough to invoke a mercy rule during evaluation screenings. Do these films have well-meaning - even likable - Asian Americans directing/producing/acting in them? Absolutely.
Does this mean they are deserving of our support? Absolutely, positively not.
And this is telling: if a community-based media organization - whose entire raison d'etre is to support independent Asian American filmmaking - decides to pass on dozens of these projects, why would we ever expect "the community," as a whole, to get behind them?
To me, there are so many opportunities to support Asian American films that if one happens to take an L -whether because it deserves to and just happens to be unlucky - it's not as if there won't be another one following behind it in a few weeks/months time. Personally, I'm left dizzy trying to keep up with what Angry Asian Man reports on in terms of new films. True, many of them still need distribution and that's still the golden threshold to cross. But again, not every AA film deserves distribution, at least based on the idea that it being AA is some how "good enough."
Ten years ago, seeing any kind of AA film in theaters was remarkable. These days, even though it isn't quotidian, it's hardly unusual either.
In other words, there's a lot out there to see.
Choose wisely. 
-  I'm surprised that with all the brouhaha around the film, there doesn't seem to be much of a class critique of a protagonist with upwardly mobile ambitions. Not having seen the film, maybe there's a reason for this. Perhaps Tang pulls of a Michael Clayton, brings down a corrupt firm, and then joins AIWA.
 I should preface all this by noting I haven't seen the film, only the trailer. But if I can be blunt: based on the trailer, this looks simply terrible. I like romantic comedies and it's probably not fair to judge a film by its trailer but there is little I can see here that makes the film look remotely appealing. The whole set-up is ridiculously gimmicky, the acting doesn't seem particularly good and the "funny" scenes included are anything but. The racial romantic politics are completely irrelevant to my skepticism (though, to be sure, it's not a big selling point for me either). According to Fang: "The trailer doesn't really do the film justice at all." I can only hope she's right.
 Given that Fang has quite eloquently explained why supporting Obama should go beyond simple identity politics, I'm all the more bewildered by her stance on the film.
 If anyone can show me marketing analysis that says otherwise, I would genuinely like to see that research.
 I'm excluding his obscure, Hong Kong feature, Life is Cheap...But Toilet Paper Is Expensive.
 Just to undermine my own theory, the fact that most of these films I go on to mention required hustling up funding just to get a shoe string budget might suggest their popularity isn't because people are rushing to give money to make them.
 The SF Chron reviewer panned the film except to say: "It is only when Grace is with her mother (Elizabeth Sung) and father (Clem Cheung) that "Falling for Grace" hints at what might have been. There is a genuine poignancy in these moments as the dutiful daughter tries to care for aging parents who are proud and stubborn. These scenes are terrific." See: the trope of the family melodrama strikes again!
 The increase in submissions and general paucity in quality are related by the fact that technological access to filmmaking has created a massive wave of amateur filmmakers who have the ability to "make movies" in ways that previous generations did not. The problem is that, in most of these cases, the ease of acquiring the means to filmmaking has not been matched by a mastery in actual filmmaking education, let alone prowess.
 I haven't been on the film festival committee since I moved out of the Bay Area in 2006 so I have no way of knowing if Falling For Grace was ever submitted to the SFIAAFF but the fact that it wasn't programmed either this year or last year suggests to me that it didn't make the grade. I have no hard evidence to support this so it's purely a conjecture. But I also know, in the past, the festival has routinely passed on "high profile" Asian American features because, frankly, the staff thought the movies were of poor quality, regardless of profile.
 Of the Asian American films I have seen in the last year, I thought In Between Days was actually good. I thought Baby was overly derivative but still powerful in moments. Shanghai Kiss was great for Ken Leung fans, a poor movie otherwise. Both of Wayne Wang's new films are decent but uneven. Same could be said of Finishing the Game which had some flat-out hilarious moments but didn't go the distance while I found Undoing ambitious but ultimately lacking. Same could be said of Americanese (love Eric Byler, wasn't crazy about his adaptation). That's eight films I just rattled off. See my point?