Since late last fall, Joel Quizon, myself and a couple of others have been serving on the feature film screening committee for the upcoming Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival. Both of us our veterans of these screening teams - this is my first year working with Visual Communications but I put in my time with NAATA/CAAM up north while Joel's been a stalwart for VC a few years going too.
I can only assume Joel drew upon this experience when he laid out his "How To Avoid the Pitfalls of Asian American Indie Movies" guide recently. These were so good I wanted to expand on a few of them based on my own experience (read: gripes).
- JQ: 1. Try to avoid the following words in your title: Jade, Yellow, Dragon, Red, “Scent” of anything or anywhere “Home”, Jasmine, Rice, Masala, (or really anything related to Asian cuisine like Dim Sum, Sushi or Adobo)
OW: It is incredible how many films get submitted with pseudo-Orientalist variations on the phenom he outlines above. Besides being self-exotifying, it's a very clear message to people that, "this film should not be taken seriously." Of course, if your name is Mira Nair, you can probably get away with this sort of thing but otherwise, if your movie title sounds like something found on a Chinese take-out menu, you need to brainstorm a little harder.
JQ: 2. When depicting family life, try your best to refrain from depicting parents as domineering, traditional, heavy accented, always in the kitchen, playing mahjong, gardening, doing Tai Chi, or gossiping.
OW: I understand that family melodramas - especially those involving the generation gap - are a fundamental part of Asian America's cinematic ouvre. And sure, there are some very good executions on this theme in both narrative and documentary forms. However, too frequently, the older generation is reduced into a cheap caricature in order to introduce an antagonist, and thus, some level of dramatic tension into a narrative.
A good story needs tension. It needs antagonists (whether people or situations). But you can't be lazy about it. The only villains who can be easily fashioned out of boilerplate are Nazis and these days, even Nazis have nuance. Otherwise, if you're going to create conflict, at least try to create an actual, human-like foil rather using Asian parents as shorthand for "soul crushing authority figure."
Here's the thing: everyone has issues with the parents and this lulls filmmakers into assuming that they can get away with said shorthand. But most people also tend to love/like their parents, despite those issues. We understand that our parents and their generation are complicated and went through all kinds of sh-- that we'll never have to. That doesn't make them saints. But it does mean that they deserve better. It's bad enough when mainstream Hollywood subjects Asians to flat stereotypical depictions yet I am astounded how many Asian American filmmakers turn around and do the same thing to their parents' generation because they lack the imagination or skills to render better characters.
JQ: 3. When casting a boyfriend for the female character, think twice about casting a white guy (no offence at all really and you may very well want to reflect how society has finally embraced interracial couples). At the very least, consider occasionally depicting Asian men as the virile, non-emasculated beings that they are. Your dad will thank you.
OW: I don't want to get deeper into this can o' worms except to say that, too often, interracial relationships are the second most common attempt at introducing narrative tension/conflict (behind a--hole parents) and this cliché is just as transparent too. Step your writing game up.
JQ: 4. When choosing an occupation or course study for the main character, try vocations other than: writer, filmmaker, actor, or martial arts instructor.
OW: Another indication of a severe lack of imagination. Again, step your writing game up.
JQ: 5. For the main character, opt for injecting well written dialogue instead of distant, silent posturing. Communicative characters communicate a lot to the audience.
OW: Joel nails this one. My feeling is that filmmakers assume that sullen-ness will be equated with depth...as if keeping your characters silent is meant to actually communicate the ocean of conflict and turmoil flowing beneath the surface.
Or maybe you can't write dialogue.
Either way, there is nothing less interesting to watch than a character who just sits on the screen, looking pissed off and explaining not a single idea, thought or feeling. There's no momentum to be squeezed out of a scene like that, let alone something visually compelling.
JQ: 6. For the film score, please avoid using a koto, a gong, a mouth harp and your friend who can play guitar but can only play nondescript noodling.
OW: I can't even try to be polite here.
F--- droning, "moody" guitar scores. Nothing screams "cliché indie" faster than hearing yet another score based entirely around some depressed emo guitarist pluck out 80 minutes of rhythm-deprived, melody-challenged "music." There's a ton of free, creative commons musical scores out there: sharpen your google skills.
I had nothing to add to these:
JQ: 7. I know you have an Aunt who has a nice big pad down in Diamond Bar or Oceanside, but when choosing a location, try a little variety. Also avoid your friend’s restaurant and when shooting a scene that calls for some serious introspection try NOT using a rooftop (This goes for romantic dinner scenes too. As we all know it is far too cold and windy up on roof tops to be having a candle lit dinner and having a mariachi band there gets
8. When making a documentary film, it is not always necessary to have the filmmaker on camera. Unless you are Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, it can be a hindrance especially when making a film about lepers from Malaysia, unless you yourself is a leper from Malaysia, then that would be fine.
9. If you think making a documentary about going back to the motherland and hanging out with your family and rediscovering your roots sounds like a great idea…it’s not. Not anymore at least. Not unless you have an entirely different spin on it, like you’re Lou Diamond Phillips or a leper originally from Malaysia.
JQ: 10. Finally, watch lots of movies. Good movies. See early Wayne Wang and Gregg Araki films. Analyze Better Luck Tomorrow with as much fervor as you would Reservoir Dogs. Watch the first films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant and Allison Anders. Watch John Ford’s Stagecoach and Chang-dong Lee’s Oasis over and over again. Binge on 70’s American cinema and films of Japanese masters. Seek out films from by Lino Brocka, Pen-ek Ratanaruang or Hirokazu Koreeda. Go to film festivals even though your film is not in it. But don’t get overwhelmed by these films because you can make something good too.
OW: Wait, John Singleton? Has he even made one unqualifiably good film? Has anyone watched Boyz N the Hood lately? I bet it won't seem as good as once it may.
In all seriousness, I don't know if the fundamental issue is that not enough filmmakers aren't watching enough movies. I think it's that they've absorbed all the lessons on the technical/visual side of filmmaking but haven't matured sufficiently as writers and storytellers. Every year on these screening committees, I am astounded at how many technically competent films are made that have absolutely no sense of character or narrative development. That's filmmaking 101 (or at least, should be). Sure, a lot of big budget directors can't tell a story worth sh-- either (hello Michael Bay!) but at least they have a few hundred million dollars worth of FX to distract you from that shortcoming. Your $10,000 indie film only has your script and hopefully some decent acting going for it.
(As others have noted, most of this isn't unique to Asian American filmmaking; it's a problem with indie filmmaking at large. But that doesn't mean "our" community can't make use of these ideas).