If you are an aspiring filmmaker, screen writer, director or actor, Christine Choy is definitely someone you want to get to know. Originally from Shanghai, Choy is former Chairwoman and now Professor of the New York University Graduate Film and Television Department. Her most famous work is probably the Oscar-nominated “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” Other films include “Homes Apart: Two Koreas”, “The Shot Heard Round the World”, and many more- all with complex and controversial Asian/Asian-American topics.
I had met Christine at a screening at the Asia Society, for one of the numerous Asian-influenced films she helped envision and produce, the most recent one called “Long Story Short”. As a professor she teaches at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. When I sat down with her, she was multi-tasking, in preparation for one of her classes. I offered to help but she said, “of course not!”, that it was easy for her to be interviewed and focused while also getting stuff done. This was one example of her extreme dedication to the students and the job!
NYU is definitely lucky to have her lead the students with her ideas and knowledge in filmmaking. She gave very in-depth and philosophical answers to questions regarding her life, her teachings and ways of looking at film.
International documentary film festival
ASIANCE: So before you came to the NYU film department, you had studied architecture, and you have an interesting story…
Christine: I was born in Shanghai. And then when I was 8 years old my family left Shanghai mysteriously and I’m still trying to figure out the reasons why. Because in 1949 there were people who left when the Communists took over and then in 1958, 59 there were also people who left during the Great Leap Forward because of hunger, and there were people who left during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1967. But we left at the weirdest time, 1964 when no one left China and so I’m still trying to find out the reason.
Looking through records, etc. there is some indication that Communists at the time felt my parents were useful rather than being sent away. They were intellectuals and bourgeois. So I left there and we moved to Hong Kong for a short period of time. China at the time didn’t have any diplomatic relations with anyone. No one recognized China except Russia, but they did not really have a relationship with Russia either. From Hong Kong we went to South Korea and then Japan because my father had a business in Japan. Unfortunately, (his business made bricks) at the time, no one was building any buildings so he had a hard time. I had a hard time too in South Korea because with a Communist country, everyone is supposed to be equal, there are no have and have-nots, but South Korea or Hong Kong has the have and have-nots, it is a discrepancy. There were very, very poor and then extremely wealthy and I felt alienated. They were so anti-Communist that my sister and I were not allowed to even talk about our growing up in China.
when I first came here I was the only non-white faculty member here. Not even just mentioning Asians. There were no African-Americans or Latinos.
So it was very oppressing and the only alternative I had was to go to school in Taiwan or the United States because both countries are anti-Communist. And of course I heard the United States was like, the “Land of Freedom” (laughter). So I got accepted by Taiwan University but I ended up coming here. I came here and unfortunately when the Communists took over, a lot of records were still kept in the Lunar calendar, which means, the day you are born you are one year old! So when I came here I was almost 16 but it turned out I was not even 15 yet. And my English was so poor that the University sent me back to high school. This particular university was Catholic. So I went back to high school for a year before entering a University. Of course without parental guidance it was rather strange for me to be in the university and not be able to study. That summer they got me a job at the Metropolitan Museum (of Art) selling postcards and someone came up to me and asked “you’re student, what are you studying?” I said “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, what do you like?” And I said, “I like painting, art and science.” He said, “Why don’t you study Architecture.” So that’s how I started in Architecture, Sort of like a fluke, you know what I mean.
ASIANCE: So how did you come to NYU to be on the Graduate Chair in the Film and Television department and now prominent faculty?
Christine: I studied architecture, transferring between five different universities because I was very curious about America. There was one year I actually transferred to Washington University in St. Louis because I had never been that far to the West, or Mid-West. It turns out it was an excellent school. Then from there I transferred to Princeton. I wanted to start a farm and there was this group of very romantic idealistic artists who got together, and we thought we would design and build our own things, surviving on that. We didn’t realize it was such a huge investment, like advertisement, the machines, equipment, and labor.
I was at Princeton for a while then got bored and transferred to Columbia. Then I was so young, a young architect.. I still am so neurotic, but I was very detail-oriented. Hours were ridiculous. They usually started from 9 and I usually didn’t get home until 11pm. It’s like making commercial films. You are at the mercy of the clients. The clients dictate their taste, what they like. If they don’t like it, it’s done. So I ended up working and constantly changing things. I had to go in weekends and make changes. At the time the computer was not widely used so things were done by hand. It was backbreaking and the pay was not so good. I just didn’t have a life for myself. And in an architectural firm you work as an apprentice, you had to work in a firm for 3-5 years before the licensing exams and I didn’t have the stomach for that.
But in terms of who makes it after graduation, who comes to direct a feature film, it’s very few women. Very few women. Because being a woman, your biological clock is also ticking. If you want to have a family, children, making films requires tremendous amounts of perseverance, focus, hassle, hustle, humiliation, you know.
Eventually there was somebody who recommended I go to a film organization called Newsreel and I joined the organization and began to work. It was pretty much self-taught, my filmmaking. And then in 1988, 89, I received a scholarship from the American Film Institute. I said why not, go check out Hollywood. And it was fun. I learned something about manipulation, narrative films, which are pretty much entertainment driven. There was very little understanding of Asian Americans. They didn’t give a damn about Asian Americans. So I felt quite alienated. Los Angeles is also a town that’s very business oriented. It has to do with kind of car you drive, you know, who you associate with, who are eating lunch or having drinks with. So I decided to come back to the Eat Coast. I opened a production company and that’s how I started making films.
ASIANCE: How do you bring Asian American subjects into your films and teachings?
Christine: I tell you, when I first came here I was the only non-white faculty member here. Not even just mentioning Asians. There were no African-Americans or Latinos. Film is very much White male’s territory and of course there are films done in Asia. But in terms of U.S. portrayals of Asian Americans until the 90’s, there have been stereotype images, very little positive images.
In the past, many Asians have done documentaries because it’s so hard to get the funding for films. They don’t have the contingencies, like who is going to watch the film. The population of Asian Pacific was only 5% at the time… it’s been difficult to make the industry understand that there is a growing population.
However there were lots of films in the mid 1980’s being showcased in well-known film festivals. There was a lot of curiosity, exoticisms about Asians, not Asian Americans. “Asian American” is a very confusing term because if the film is from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, Pakistan, or Vietnam, wherever, it is always a nationhood associated with it. But with Asian American, the term is so vague, composed of many different nationalities. So for the larger American population, they cannot tell the difference between Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, etc. If you make a film with specific nationalities, like a film about Vietnamese, the Chinese maybe will not look at it, or a film about Korea, the Japanese will not look at it… the percentage gets a further reduction. You have the masses, purchasing power in consideration and that’s when it gets problematic. So when I started making films about Asian Americans in this country, I also tried to tell young people don’t imitate anyone. “You don’t have to go to another country, just talk to the elderly, observe more about peoples’ daily life, and stories can be done with interesting angles and possibly distributed.” But many still imitated Hollywood stuff, you know.
The American family structure is bizarre. 50-60% of families are already falling apart, divorced you know. So if you were born in the 1980s and 1990’s the role model structure is disappearing. So you come to University looking for a role model but you not only want an instructor, you want a Mom and Dad to understand your emotional needs.
ASIANCE: Are there more women or men in the film department?
Christine: I think it is quite even now. But in terms of who makes it after graduation, who comes to direct a feature film, it’s very few women. Very few women. Because being a woman, your biological clock is also ticking. If you want to have a family, children, making films requires tremendous amounts of perseverance, focus, hassle, hustle, humiliation, you know. So when you have a family it’s difficult to stay. Women usually shy away, especially in the technical area. Women are usually the script supervisors or editors. There are very little sound engineers or cinematographers because it requires a tremendous amount of physical work. Plus, traveling. Living in hotels, motels, for months. Not one or two days but months. When I went to Africa I stayed there for three months. And I had two young children at the time. No wonder my marriage fell apart. (Laughter)
ASIANCE: Do you think that is a sacrifice then?
Christine: It depends on how you determine sacrifice. Some people sacrifice because they have to feed their children. With filmmakers, many enjoy making films. So it’s not really a sacrifice.
ASIANCE: Oh of course. So I guess I mean, how do you describe the risk then – of filmmaking?
Christine: Yes it’s more like taking a risk in life. You never know if you are going to succeed or not. So there are very few people in the world who really enjoy what they are doing in terms of their jobs. I am very lucky. I enjoy doing film-sometimes I don’t even get paid. But I have this job as a faculty member. NYU pays my salary. So I am able to do a lot of freebie productions for other people, like Long Story Short, a case in point.
ASIANCE: Do students ever steal each other’s film ideas?
Christine: I don’t mind with ideas. Ideas you cannot copyright. The concept you cannot copyright. But some people may have a brilliant idea but they don’t know how to execute it. Like yesterday in class, someone wanted to do the election. It’s a concept, an idea, but the approach may be very different. Each person’s idea is based on what they do, how hard they work, awareness of surroundings, endurance, and personality. This country is so paranoid about stealing ideas. In Asia, knowledge is public. Copying someone’s idea is not a crime. But here – WOW, one sentence is the same, and you’ll be dead meat. Especially if it’s someone’s work that is well known. So it’s a different kind of concept.
ASIANCE: What Asian country now do you feel has films that are similar to Hollywood, or more unique than Hollywood?
Christine: Everybody is imitating Hollywood. I don’t like to generalize that because there is lots of originality in Korea, tremendous originality in Japan and there is a lot of originality in China, but Hollywood’s influence is very powerful. The only place it cannot penetrate is India because it has its own genre, Bollywood, and a mass population able to sustain it at the box office, whereas Korea and Japan are not big enough. There are not enough people, and in China people don’t have time to go see the movies. They are working so hard. Movies are for those people who have leisure time. When you don’t have extra time you just don’t have it.
ASIANCE: Do you think there is more interesting films coming from developing countries now?
Christine: China has a tremendous amount of contradictions with expansion culturally and politically. The U.S. also has contradictions. But some wonderful films come from Iran, for example, a more oppressive society, man cannot touch woman, woman cannot touch man but within the confined restrictions, they make great films. And if you look at England and France, very advanced societies, they do not have many great films coming out of them with the exception of films that are co-produced with an emerging country.
For example, a film co-produced between Germany and Turkey called Edge of Heaven- it’s a wonderful film. The globalization, the global village is a new challenge so you cannot make a film strictly for domestic populations anymore. There are films designed for that, propaganda films or whatever. But if you want to make artistic films it has to address universality among all people and the language should be translatable.
ASIANCE: How do you describe the position of a mentor, for young people?
Christine: The best mentor is a one-on-one but whatever experience I have I cannot translate to the next person. It’s a frame of reference rather than “mentor”. So my experience is drastically different than American students. I’m a foreigner, a mother, immigrant, I’m a radical, I’m a filmmaker, and I have lived many, many different places. So, it is giving the student a direction of where he or she can learn by himself. Giving a crossroad, saying turn left, right is something else. Mentorship is allowing people to experience different things for themselves to learn about what to do from that.
Comparing the young people who have worked for me (United States) with the ones who worked for me in Shanghai is like Heaven and Hell. These American students have much more self-importance.
ASIANCE: How do the students get ahead, how do they get their contacts, their foot in the door?
Christine: We have a separate program and internship program. They mostly begin their internship junior year and they work in a production company and that gives them good contact. It’s mostly up to the young people. American young people have terrible work habits. They’re basically lazy, procrastinating. “I’ll do it tomorrow, tomorrow,” and end up not doing it. So they don’t have a lot of common sense. How do you teach someone common sense, unless they have lived. Personally I make the initial contact and they have to deal with it themselves. Comparing the young people who have worked for me with the ones who worked for me in Shanghai is like Heaven and Hell. These American students have much more self-importance. They think they know everything already and are like “why the heck do I have to be told” whereas in Asia, knowledge is the only way they can get out of their poverty. So this thirst for learning is very different in the United States.
I also have people who work for me who don’t know anything. They don’t ask questions because they think they are smart enough to figure it out themselves and they end up screwing up the whole process, wasting money and wasting time. So no matter how much you try to encourage the young filmmakers, the education they receive is from the institution and also from their family.
The American family structure is bizarre. 50-60% of families are already falling apart, divorced you know. So if you were born in the 1980s and 1990’s the role model structure is disappearing. So you come to University looking for a role model but you not only want an instructor, you want a Mom and Dad to understand your emotional needs. But hell, I’m not your mother and Dad. I don’t know your emotional needs, I didn’t raise you. I didn’t change your diapers. So here is the dichotomy. How do you advise a student or give young people direction? The only way I can do it in this country is never really provide them a long-term goal because everyone is so short sighted. They want the result tomorrow. They don’t want to put hard work into three years down the road. Another problem here is the wage. Because the living expenses are so much here and everyone gets paid hourly or daily, weekly, rarely monthly.
In Asia there’s no such regulation. “If you work for me, here’s a project, I will pay you 2,000 that’s it. I don’t care how long it takes,” It’s a project rather than calculating hours. So once you calculate hours the human relation begins to disintegrate. So the relations begin to deteriorate and it becomes the collective consciousness.
ASIANCE: What is the process of choosing students? Is it true it is not all just experienced filmmakers?
Christine: We pick (well when I was a Chair in the Graduate Department) 36 students out of thousands of applicants. We don’t look at the student’s own strength but how the class, will help each other and work together. They have to be from International sectors. They can come from film experience or have little experience, from a Third World, and we need a person from an Ivy League, someone very technical… because filmmaking is all very collaborative. You are looking at a whole class, not just individuals. You can have a brilliant person but they do not mix with the class and that is problematic. If he or she doesn’t show up for someone else’s production, etc. or if someone is very wealthy and can hire outside production, that is not fair. So we have a lot restrictions saying you cannot hire outside people at all until you are doing your thesis. So the collaboration in the classroom is the most important.
ASIANCE: So do you think people are more aware of the Asian American identity because of film?
Christine: It’s a turning point but only applicable to larger cities like New York, Los Angeles… If you go to the Midwest they are still watching Ching Chang Chon or Long Duck Dong on Sixteen Candles, junk like that, you know. Or zero. It’s not only the stereotype, it’s the absence of the image. For the viewer, there would be absolutely no reference for them of who is the Asian American and that is bad.