Are you happy?
This was the final question I asked singer/songwriter Bobby Choy (aka Big Phony) in the documentary, I Hate Big Phony.
After an extended pregnant pause:
"Am I happy? No."
Do you think you'll ever be happy?
"Probably not. I think I'm OK with that though. Being just content. I just want to be content."
"I'm not going to be great."
Whoa whoa whoa! You probably didn't come to Angry Asian Man to read about a maudlin emo tale of existential woe. This isn't a fucking Hot Topic at the Glendale Galleria.
I'll back up.
In late 2013 I was at a SXSW Music kickoff party in LA (believe me I know how LA that sounds). A good friend of mine wanted to introduce me to musician and singer/songwriter, Bobby Choy. I said, "Sure. Where is he?" My friend pointed behind me. I turned around, still not knowing who he was talking about because all I saw was this unassuming guy with a hangdog look, peeking behind a mop of hair. I thought he was part of SXSW's bookkeeping department, not a rock star. Some people are good at math. I'm good at being judgmental.
I hadn't heard of Big Phony nor listened to his music before, but Bobby was gracious enough to send me a few of his songs. Much of his music is comprised of an acoustic guitar and the innocent and sweet intonation of his vocals. In the simplest terms, it was melancholic, but simultaneously harmonious and endearing. A man who was making the music that he wanted to.
I became a fan right away.
Although Bobby had just moved from LA to Seoul, we kept in touch. During this time I came to realize how many people knew him and shared stories about how he grew up in NYC and didn't get into music until his late 20s. They all loved Bobby and didn't have enough nice things to say about him. But why was the tagline he used always unequivocally stating "I HATE BIG PHONY"? Why was he always pictured with a bag over his head? Even in his music videos?
After talking to Bobby again, I realized he was going to have a pretty crazed and overwhelming 2015. Possessing a nominal-to-nothing grasp in documentary filmmaking, I asked if I could follow and film him in Austin, Los Angeles and Seoul.
What best can be described as the personification of the shrug emoticon -- he agreed. Thankfully the wonderfully talented filmmaker, Jin Yoo-Kim agreed to come on board as editor and co-producer on the film.
AUSTIN, TX (SXSW)
LOS ANGELES, CA
But I could sense that there was this creeping heartache building up inside of him, wondering if he made the right decision to leave the States, and instead make his new home in a place where K-Pop is king.
SEOUL, S. KOREA
"There's the same kind of isolation here. I don't know where I belong."
And this is where we come back to the beginning, when Bobby stated that he'd probably never be happy. He was having a difficult time with a new record label, had been sick with something for the past month (confiding that he hasn't seen a doctor in 12 years), and was struggling to make ends meet in a small studio apartment in Hongdae that charged him an extra $100/month for a window.
"Jesus Christ, will this story stop being sad?" you may be asking yourself. In which case thanks for following along this far.
CUT TO: the proverbial "5 months later." Bobby and I Skyped and he had a different timbre to his voice. He was still in limbo with the record label, but that didn't matter. He just finished writing a script for a feature film, and excited about it. He felt awkward though, stating that he's not a screenwriter. It's an indie film loosely based on his life and will feature his music, new and old. It's as if he finally found peace with where he was in his life.
What's it called?
"FICTION & OTHER REALITIES, the same title as my first album."
Los Angeles, CA – July 2016
Which brings us to today. Bobby recently returned to LA for KCon and I was eager to reconnect with him.
Not knowing what to expect, he had fantastic news… Ficion & Other Realities is in pre-production and will begin shooting in Seoul this fall! He also just successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording of his new album (with Goh Nakamura producing), which was just released digitally to all his backers.
After a Beats 1 Radio interview he did with host Dumbfoundead...
... we immediately had to grab some food for his jetlagged body. Pho 87 in Chinatown was the place – the first place he ever had pho when his mother took him there some two decades ago.
Later that evening, we met up with friends at Café Bleu. I could tell that he missed LA and his friends, but he had a look of being more than just content. We found a quiet space at the bar and shared a whiskey together. I asked him:
Are you happy?
Without hesitation: "Yeah. I'm happy."
Big Phony's music is available at: https://bigphony.bandcamp.com/
I Hate Big Phony is continuing its film festival run throughout 2016.
Milton Liu is a writer/producer/director and the Director of Programs at Visual Communications (LA Asian Pacific Film Festival). His most recent projects include AWESOME ASIAN BAD GUYS, I HATE BIG PHONY and JOHN HUGHES RUINED MY LIFE. He's an avid Chicago Cubs fan and believes that it will be another 108 years before they win the World Series -- so he also jumps on the KC Royals bandwagon. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @liumilton.