It Exists: Asian American Cinema

Guest Post by Andrew Ahn

I was confused for Daniel Kwan five times at Sundance. Yes, we both made features that were premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Yes, we are both Asian. And yes, we both have facial hair. But no, I am not Daniel Kwan of the Daniels, the writing and directing duo behind Swiss Army Man. I am Andrew Ahn, writer and director of Spa Night.

People would congratulate me on Swiss Army Man. They would ask me what it was like to work with Daniel Radcliffe. Fortunately, I think Daniel Kwan is a good looking guy, so I'm flattered as much as I am offended. However, more importantly, it's a good sign for Asian American film that there was another filmmaker at Sundance that I could be mistaken for. In fact, there were five Asian American writer directors with films within the festival's US Dramatic Competition: Meera Menon (Equity), Jason Lew (The Free World), Soyoung Kim (Lovesong), Daniel Kwan (Swiss Army Man), and myself. This is an impressive and surprisingly under-publicized statistic. At Sundance last year, Benson Lee's Seoul Searching and Jennifer Phang's Advantageous screened; at SXSW, Daniel Park's Ktown Cowboys.

The media has focused on the lack of Asian American representation in film, both in front and behind the camera. This type of reporting is important; it's galvanizing. However, it does not support, celebrate, or promote the work that is already being made. Just this summer, there are three Asian American films that have or will have opened in theaters: Seoul Searching, Ray Yeung's Front Cover, and my film Spa Night. This is encouraging, a strong indicator of our progress. However, more has been written about The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell, and Doctor Strange than these films. This is unfortunate and a true missed opportunity, because our heroes don't look like Matt Damon. Our heroes look like Justin Chon, Rosalina Lee, Jake Choi, and Joe Seo.

Yes, Spa Night is not a blockbuster action adventure film. My main character is David Cho, a young Korean American man finds a job at a Korean spa to help support his family. While he's at the spa, he discovers an underground world of gay cruising that both scares and excites him. Ultimately, the film is an intimate story of a Korean American immigrant family living in Los Angeles. It is about family expectation, hopes, and dreams. It may not have explosions or big Hollywood actors, but there is a real value to this story.

It's important that we stop placing so much importance on finding validation within the mainstream. The films made by the studio system have different priorities, ones that don't often align with our desire to see more Asian American representation on screen. We don't have to wait for studio executives to give us the opportunities. In fact, Asian American filmmakers have been making our own opportunities for decades.

It is my belief that a true Asian American cinema culture exists. It is independent, vibrant, and diverse. It is cultivated by organizations like Visual Communications, CAAM, Pacific Arts Movement, Asian CineVision, FAAIM, Sundance, and Film Independent. It has a history beyond Better Luck Tomorrow and The Joy Luck Club. Let's not forget actors like Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa and films like Flower Drum Song and Chan is Missing. We have a rich past of people and films that we can celebrate.

We also have a promising future that we need to support. Jen Suhr is the writer and director of You and Me Both, an upcoming feature produced by and starring Constance Wu. Valerie Soe is in production on her documentary Love Boat: Taiwan. At the time of writing, feature films Stand Up Man by Aram Collier and Snakehead by Evan Jackson Leong (director of Linsanity) have Kickstarter campaigns in full swing. Visual Communications is accepting applications for their Armed with a Camera fellowship. There is so much happening that deserves our attention.

The films exist. The makers exist. If we want people to pay attention to our community, we need to pay attention to each other.

Andrew Ahn is a Korean American filmmaker born and raised in Los Angeles. His feature film SPA NIGHT premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was one of RogerEbert.com's Best Films of Sundance 2016. The film is opening theatrically in New York starting August 19th at the Metrograph and in Los Angeles starting August 26th at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas.

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