California Correspondent Ed Moy reports on the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Never Forever director Gina Kim has always loved melodramas — and with her first feature film, she has merged her love for the melodrama with Asian and Womens themes.California Correspondent Ed Moy reports on the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Never Forever director Gina Kim has always loved melodramas — and with her first feature film, she has merged her love for the melodrama with Asian and Women’s themes.
Set in New York, Never Forever tells the story of Sophie, a Caucasian woman married to Andrew, a successful Korean American lawyer. But her marriage begins to fall apart when the couple is unable to conceive a baby. In her desperation to save the marriage, Sophie hires a Korean immigrant worker named Jihah to impregnate her.
Although filled with moments of despair, loneliness and alienation, “Never Forever” remains hopeful in its portrayal of Sophie and her search for happiness.
Kim recently talked with Asiance Magazine at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival about Asian male sexuality in American cinema, the choice of Vera Farmiga as Sophie and the use of costumes to create a character arc.
I was really drawn to address Asian male identity and masculinity, in the U.S. mainstream culture because when I look at the mainstream culture, in general in this country, Asian males are never sexual. They are completely de-sexualized in this country, which is odd and even tragic.
ASIANCE: Where did you get the inspiration to write the script for Never Forever?
GKim: I was always interested in the Asian themes, body, sexuality and gender in general. But when I was struggling to write the script I was teaching at Harvard. I was teaching film production and Korean Cinema courses. I had this wonderful opportunity to revisit all the classics of Korean cinema. It’s a rare opportunity because some of the prints are missing and you don’t really get to see those films in print. But when I see the films, I basically rediscovered the genre of melodrama.
Melodramas often have this derogatory connotation as kind of weepy and tearjerkers. But I was always drawn to melodrama and that was one of my biggest inspirations. But with these Korean melodramas from the 60’s I was just absolutely fascinated because they are even more radical then the films that we make in Korea these days, and the female characters are really strong and are the center of the drama. They have main drives that keep the plot going. They always have this strong desire to achieve what they want out of their lives. Of course, at the end, it was the 1960’s so they all end up compromising and they all give up their lives and go back to their family. But I started to wonder what if I make a melodrama and use the melodrama as a platform, but also have it be a character-driven film so that I don’t have to compromise integrating of the female character. I sort of combined those genres of melodrama with my interests that I had with the female body and from there came out “Never Forever”.
ASIANCE: What made you decide to make the lead female character Caucasian?
GKim: As much as I was interested in depicting the complexity of female sexuality and identity, I was really drawn to address Asian male identity and masculinity, in the U.S. mainstream culture because when I look at the mainstream culture, in general in this country, Asian males are never sexual. They are completely de-sexualized in this country, which is odd and even tragic. So there is this very literal stereotype that exists about the Asian American male and masculinity and sexuality. They are portrayed as either computer science geeks, doctors, lawyers, very successful but still struggling with their sexuality.
And at the other end of the spectrum, they are basically poor immigrants who don’t speak English very well — and you encounter them everyday on the street or the laundry mat, grocery store, or as a delivery boy or what not, but you don’t really notice them as sexual being at all. I mean it is quite odd because all the other races like Latino or African-American, they’re supposed to be really sexy and you see all of this romantic relationship between them and Caucasian women even in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
But with Asian man it never happens and I just really wanted to challenge that connotation and the stereotypes that we have. In order for me to achieve that, Sophie had to be Caucasian so that I can challenge that really dumb tragic stereotype of Asian male sexuality. And also I wanted to put a little distance between Sophie and myself so that I can balance it out between these two main male characters and one Caucasian woman character because the three of them are all part of me really.
ASIANCE: So did you draw from your own life to create these characters?
GKim: No, not really. It’s completely fictional, in terms of what happens in the story, but in terms of the characters, they are part of me. They are like my babies. I mean Jihah is a poor immigrant Korean guy who can’t speak English very well. I was born and raised in Korea and I came here to go to film school.
Even though I didn’t work in a laundry mat or meat packing plant, I could completely relate to those people. The feelings they go through, the humiliation as a non-native speaker. And then Andrew, of course, he’s very successful second-generation Korean-American who made his way through the mainstream culture luckily.
I was as successful as Andrew but I did teach at Harvard for two years, as full-time faculty, and that was a real eye-opening experience. That kind of experience can imposed a lot of responsibility on you as a person with a specific ethnic background.
A lot of Korean press or Korean people in general were interested in my position, my career, and everything. I felt that’ why I had to live up to their expectations which was a big burden for me, although I was nobody. But there was still a big burden just because I was Korean, and just because I was teaching at Harvard that was a huge burden. So I can completely understand Andrew’s dilemma to feel always obliged to represent himself as a perfect Korean American in front of everybody, especially in front of your own family and the Korean American society.
And Sophie, of course, she deals with the emotional turmoil, the questions that she has for herself and everything. I’m a woman of Sophie’s generation because the film is contemporary and these situations are completely derived from my own experiences and my own questions since puberty, basically. So what happens in the film is completely fictional but the characters are all derived from me I think.
ASIANCE: Why did you choose to emphasize Korean Christian Church and religion in “Never Forever”?
GKim:I think Christianity and Korean American characters are very important. That was something really foreign and unfamiliar to me when I first moved to the U.S. and as a non-Christian person I felt quite isolated and alienated. I don’t have anything against Christianity, and I don’t have any political opinion on any religion, but I thought that it would be very interesting to juxtapose Sophie’s alienation and isolation in the backdrop of the Korean American Church. I mean basically Sophie doesn’t talk that much.
This is not a dialogue happy film to begin with and I had to come up with some really ingenuous device to show Sophie’s isolation without words. And to me, the bible study scene and to pray with the whole community getting together to pray for Sophie when she doesn’t even understand what’s going on is really tragic and absurd and even ridiculous and funny. That really shows how Sophie’s isolated in this Korean American family.
ASIANCE: How did you come about picking Vera Farmiga? Was she your first choice?
GKim: Yeah. I saw Vera in “Down to the Bone”. It’s a small film but wonderful film and Vera did a terrific job in the film. I was mesmerized by how she acted in that film. I mean some actors are really good, but then you can obviously tell that they are acting. But Vera is different because she just really becomes her character and when you watch her films, for instance, “Down to the Bone”, it’s very hard to imagine her out of that character. It’s like sometimes you even wonder if she really was a drug addict or did she really have that experience? How could you pull that off? I mean you can’t imagine Vera to be cheery and happy in this normal outfit, you know, going to the premiere and what not. That’s really hard to imagine.
So I looked up Vera in all of her films, and she was like that in every single film that she was in. She was that character. And when I finally met her in person, I knew she was my Sophie because she had those enormous eyes — and they’re very hypnotic.
Basically, those eyes make you think about what the character is going through because she has a very beautiful face, but at the same time very interesting to look at, and yet not always really easy or comfortable to look at. With some blue eyed-blonde girls you just know they are beautiful, pleasurable to look at. But they don’t make you think. They’re just completely forgettable. They’re like eye-candy. But Vera is quite the opposite. You’re almost forced by her presence to think about her physicality, and the life she leads, and that was exactly the qualities I was looking for from my Sophie.
ASIANCE: Did that have anything to do with you wanting to pay homage to films like “Belle De Jour”? Movies with those kinds of female characters.
GKim: Yeah, maybe. I never thought about it. I don’t think I did it consciously, but probably because Vera and I talked about “Belle De Jour” a lot and “Rosemary’s Baby”, too. Those films had female characters who really didn’t know what to do with their life and didn’t really know what they wanted out of their lives. They’re really fascinating. But at the same time they’re just really determined to pursue, and to at least, figure out what they wanted out of their lives.
And I thought Sophie was one of them. Just like Catherine Deneuve in “Belle De Jour”, Dominique Sanda in “The Gentle Woman” and Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”. They’re fragile. They’re vulnerable. They were even meek and obedient but they’re actually not. They have certain kinds of characteristics in terms of how they carry their bodies. They’re very feminine but with a very strange physical presence in the cinematic frame. There is a very strange mismatch going on with the background and the feminine body in each and every frame of the film and I wanted to achieve that with this film too because Sophie’s character is like that. She’s completely isolated from the surrounding environment and wherever she goes she’s an outsider, an alien. We talked a lot about those films and the costumes and everything.
ASIANCE: Who chose the outfits for Sophie? They obviously weren’t contemporary or modern. They seemed to be from another time or movie.
GKim: That’s expressive of the sort of quirky and unique belief in realism for me. I believe in realism but not in the very lazy, easy way. So everything has to be realistic but then it should hold up within the context of this film because film is film. It’s fictional even when it’s derived from your story — and for me to create the emotional arc that Sophie goes through, one of the most important things was costume.
So Sophie starts out in black and white at the funeral, almost like a monotone black and white or blue and gray, those kinds of colors. And as much as the colors are important, so are the shapes, and the items are really important to the character because she always wears this blouse and skirt that are almost like 1950’s style, kinda retro. The most important thing here is they are opaque and there is this little tie thing going on that kind of straps the neck because when I think about it, the back of a woman’s neck at the collar bone is the most sensual part of a woman’s body. When you think about the proper outfits for formal occasions, men wear neckties. So I liked creating that sense of really uptight official look and you have to somehow hide your neck. That completely sexualizes the entire attire, so because of that we chose each every single blouse for Sophie’s outfits.
Click to watch the trailer
Vera and I pretty much did everything. We went vintage shopping together and there was this amazing designer Y&K, who sponsored us, and they’re Korean designers. They really loved the script and wanted to take part in this film so they provided a couple of dresses as well. So when Sophie “changes” her outfit changes first.
Basically, when she has this emotional outburst with Jihah at the Chinese restaurant, she wears the same kind of blouse, but it’s a little bit see through now. Although it’s the same style of dress, it’s wide and see through, as if her sexuality and her emotions are coming out of her body. Then near the end, she wears these very sexy deep v-neck dresses with like red flowers blooming at the skirt. She wears this green dress with deep v-neck that actually shows off her cleavage. So it was very important to create that arc with the costumes.
ASIANCE: (Warning: spoiler alert!) Tell us about the last shot of the film with Sophie at the beach with her baby and pregnant with another baby.
GKim: The last shot is open ended. Obviously, we don’t see who Sophie is with. This actually upset some more conservative males in Korea. But who she ends up with is not important. What is important is she is happy right now where she is. She is pregnant for herself.
ASIANCE: Sophie looks right at the camera and smiles, breaking that “fourth-wall” with the audience. What was the meaning there?
GKim: I wanted that moment to be transcendent. The eyes staring at you, saying, “I’m happy now.” And that mysterious smile.
Wayne Wang in conversation
Wayne Wang is back at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) this year with two new films “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and its companion piece “The Princess of Nebraska”.
No Stranger to Asian American audiences, Wang has brought us “The Joy Luck Club”, as well as his first feature film, the Independent film “Chan is Missing”. He’s also directed big-budget Hollywood fare like “Maid in Manhattan” and “Last Holiday”.
Wang was a special guest at “An Afternoon with Wayne Wang in conversation with Dennis Lim” event at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in Japantown.
The 90-minute event featured Wang talking about his love for filmmakers such as Yaujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer, as well as other influential filmmakers that helped shape his work.
Hosted by New York Times/ex-Village Voice film critic Dennis Lim, the two talked at length about various films, including a few relatively obscure Chinese and Taiwanese films, especially to Westerners.
In particular, Wang pointed out that Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s inspirations for the bamboo forest fight scenes in their recent epic films “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” were probably Chinese director King Hu’s 1971 film “A Touch of Zen”, the first Chinese action movie to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Wang pointed out that back then there was not a lot of wire-work in the film but it still holds up over time with its mixture of action and artistic cinema. He noted that the story featured one of the first female heroes on screen.
He also suggested that the film was heavily influenced by the traditional Chinese Opera and Chinese paintings, and the framing of the shots were often times like landscape paintings. All of which, filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee have brought through their work.
Later, Wang fielded questions at a screening of “The Princess of Nebraska” at the Clay Theater.
Asked what his experience was like making this film as opposed to “Thousand Years of Good Prayers”, Wang compared it to “playing jazz versus classical piano.”
The film, which was shot on a digital video camera and later transferred to 35mm film, has a very documentary feel and look. Wang recalled the low-budget project as being much like in his “Chan is Missing” days. He also reminisced about the making of “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face”, both of which were companion films, as were “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “Dim Sum”.
“I had to let myself out of the jail cell,” Wang joked about the experience of working with a script and without.
Utilizing his “couplet” approach to filmmaking, Wang said he’s been able to keep his creativity active. He allows his more emotional, instinctive urges to shine through in the choices made with the cinematography and editing.
“I really love blurring fiction and documentary,” Wang said of the film.
Shot by Colma: The Musical director Richard Wong, The Princess of Nebraska’s cinematography often times has a hand-held Youtube home video look and even utilizes cell phone camera footage. Sponsored by Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), the film was the first feature produced by CAAM.
The film stars newcomer Ling Li, a college student at the University of California Davis, who was still a high school student at the time the film was shot. One of the film’s producers jokingly stated that he had to get permission from Li’s High School Principal to appear in the film. The film also featured two well-known San Francisco Bay Area actors Patrice Banais and Brian Danforth, who are non-Chinese, but could speak fluent Mandarin for the film.
“The world is definitely getting smaller, Wang said. “It’s the future.”
As for Li, the 20-year-old had barely heard of the famous “Tankman of Tiananmen” square, who stood in front of tanks in protest in 1989 during the student democracy movement. Although things have changed in China, Wang anticipates the film will likely not be released widely there. He noted that, even today, the government in China does not fully recognize or acknowledge the events of Tiananmen square.
Wang also joked that even though the film’s title is “The Princess of Nebraska”, it will probably not be playing at multiplexes in the Midwest any time soon, since its most likely niche audience will be found at art house theaters in the larger cities with more diverse populations. He also pointed out the disparity in Asian American and Hollywood movie finances by mentioning the fact that his most successful film was “Maid in Manhattan”, which took in over 100 million in box office and was the biggest hit in the Philippines when it came out.
Fox Diversity Casting Workshop
Fox Diversity Development was on hand at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) today at the Hotel Kabuki.
With help from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), festival organizers hosted an open casting call workshop for undiscovered Asian American talent.
About a dozen aspiring television stars were selected to audition at the workshop for Fox Diversity Casting Consultant Janice Tanaka, who said that she received some 80 submissions.
Focusing on preparing young actors for television, the workshop was set up like a classroom with about 50 people in attendance watching and observing the participants go through the process.
For the audition, selected participants were asked to prepare a monologue of their choice lasting from 1-2 minutes without relying on another actor to play off. Participants were also asked to play their “type” and match their “look,” as well as, their age and personality. That is to say, those that thought they were funny, went for comical scenes, while those that preferred drama brought out their best Shakespearean performances.
A large TV monitor connected to a video camera was set up in the middle of the room for everyone to watch the performers as they would appear on camera. Tanaka gave feedback after each performance. Audience members were also asked to lend any constructive comments.
Although sitting just a few feet away from the performers, Tanaka spent most of her time watching the auditions on the TV monitor to get a true sense of what they look like on camera, rather than what they projected to the audience in the room.
Overall, most of the performances were good. Several were well rehearsed and thought out ahead of time. A few performers even wrote their own monologues, the funniest of which was a young Filipino-American college student with spastic physical comedy traits that brought to mind actor comics such as Kal Penn and Adam Sandler. There was also a professional actress, who had appeared on daytime soap operas.
However, many other performers discovered they just didn’t match the “type” represented in their headshots and the performance they were giving. Worst yet, some had no idea what their best “type” should be.
In particular, Tanaka made a point of letting each performer be aware of their “look” and “type” as represented in their headshot.
As an example, she held up a serious-looking headshot submitted by actor Charles Lee, who during his audition performed a serious monologue about a character recalling his own suicide attempt, but came across more as quirky and comical.
“Talking to Tanaka after the workshop, she emphasized the importance of playing to your type,” Lee said. “She said that many of us had jubilant personalities and that we should focus on playing young rather than someone older; it’s not necessarily about playing more dramatic or more comedic. She also said “to highlight my nice smile, a feature I should definitely showcase in my headshot.”
True to her being “nice” with the performers, Tanaka gave everybody an opportunity to make changes based on her feedback of their performance and in some instances allowed them to do their monologues several times.
One such performer was Krista Yu, a 19-year-old theater student from Carnegie Mellon University, who had her dad Alon Yu in attendance to support her during the audition.
“I thought it was insightful to learn what they are looking for from an Asian American girl my age,” Yu said. “I learned it’s different from theater.”
Although physically appearing her age in-person, Yu performed a scene written for a much older actress, which didn’t play well on camera, prompting Tanaka to ask, “Do you have anything in the 20’s age range? A relationship thing or something because you look so cute when you smile, but you’re trying to play too old.”
Again Tanaka used Yu’s headshot, a very serious adult-looking photo rather than young, cheery college coed, to point out the importance of having a headshot representative of the performers age, personality and “type.”
“You have to really look at yourself on tape,” Tanaka added.
Nevertheless, Yu’s father seemed very satisfied with the workshop and Tanaka’s critique of his daughter’s performance.
“It was all very good input. It’s all very helpful,” Yu’s father said, “We’ll keep encouraging her to be in the arts because that’s what she likes to do.”
As for what happens after the auditions, the tapes will be reviewed by Tanaka along with a Creative Executive from Fox Diversity Development. The performers that get selected from the tapes will have a DVD of their audition forwarded on to Fox Casting Executives, who will contact Tanaka and Fox Diversity Development, if they like what they see, to set up a meeting.
“Well with any acting it’s sort of what are the shows we have available for slots,” Tanaka said of the process. “It could be a walk-on. It could be anything that a casting director on our shows are looking for. So we work very closely with our casting department. So if we come across someone that is really good, we will go ahead and submit them for all the shows that are up and pilots that are up currently for development.”
However, Tanaka did make it clear that Fox Diversity Casting Workshops are more about looking for new faces to appear in smaller roles rather than finding the next big star.
“We’re talking about a guy that maybe a suspect on “Bones” or a patient on House,” Tanaka said. ‘We’re talking about someone that maybe a sort of guest-star or even a one-liner appearance. We’re not talking major because we know that whole circuit of looking for major actors is much different than looking for people who are just starting into their careers.”
Tanaka finished with this thought on what it takes to succeed: “It’s the personality. It’s the drive. It’s the talent of that particular individual that will make a difference in that person’s career.”
For more about Fox Diversity visit the website at: www.fox.com/diversity