Director Justin Lin on Asian American Filmmaking

Check out this article by Justin Lin, arguably one of the better known Taiwanese American filmmakers who started out on the independent track with films such as Shopping For Fangs, Better Luck Tomorrow, Finishing the Game, and more recently has broken through the Hollywood glass ceiling to work on industry films such as Annapolis, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious.

Read his article: Am I ‘retarded’ for making Asian American films?

In it, he discusses the making of Asian American films from a financial perspective and gives some insight into the viability of “representing” for the cause. As another filmmaker once told Justin, “it’s fun to talk about representin’ and stuff until you get a mortgage.” And considering the lack of “defined community” and the relatively small numbers of Asian Americans, he argues, the business plan just doesn’t make sense.

Depressing? Possibly. A shot of reality? Maybe.

So what’s more important? Pursuing the passion, representing the community, or getting by financially? Hard choices, indeed.

But therein lies the problem. Do these choices have to be mutually exclusive? I don’t think so.

Certainly, Asian Americans as a consumer base are a diverse group and there is no one story that defines the community. But does that mean any Asian American story is bound to fail? And, sure, independent films by definition have a harder time getting funded, noticed, or distributed, but does that mean we can’t propel the excellent films out into the mainstream? Yes, young filmmakers struggle, and at some point growing up means figuring out if the bottom line still can support a living pursuing the arts, but does this mean one must compromise the personal passion?

I’m not a filmmaker, director, or producer, so take my opinions with a grain of salt because I don’t have the answers. But, what I do know is that it will be up to us as a community to rally together and make ourselves noticed if we are to change the system or influence the process. It’s not enough to just declare “foul” when we see that a good Asian American film isn’t picked up by a distributor or when  a Hollywood movie presents yet another stereotypical character. At some point, it’s up to us to take the same creativity in the filmmaking process and apply it to the business, production, and distribution end. We saw a glimpse of this with Justin Lin’s own Better Luck Tomorrow and the way they rallied the grassroots base to come out to support the film. That got them some attention from the likes of MTV for sure. But, now it’s time to take it to another level by taking the party to Hollywood’s front door ourselves.

I bring this up because I have observed a good friend of mine, actor/producer Will Tiao, accomplish something I would never have imagined – bring the story of a controversial period of Taiwanese history to the big screen. Four years ago, he began to speak of an idea driven by his passion for Taiwanese identity, American politics, and acting. After rallying supportive community members and investors to raise an amount of capital unheard of by Asian American independent film standards (let’s just say “multi-million” would be accurate), then taking his independent project straight to Hollywood and hiring seasoned actors and an experienced director to tell the story he wanted, a slick political action thriller feature film was born. Furthermore, instead of sticking to just the Asian American film festival premieres, Will Tiao’s company Formosa Films actively marketed itself for distribution. This independent film team played by its own Hollywood rules, and now we are nearing February 2010 when “our” film, “our” story, FORMOSA BETRAYED, opens in theaters nationwide. And, no, not every filmmaker will be able to do what this team and its investors did, but it sure raises eyebrows when you hear about how they did it themselves.

This is an interesting moment for our Asian American community given the upcoming release of a movie that tells a story relevant to the Taiwanese American experience even though it features a Caucasian lead actor (James Van Der Beek). We’ll soon see if this “Asian American” independent film can tackle the last hurdle – and that is succeed in the Hollywood box office simply by having approached “the game” a little bit differently.

It comes down to, as Justin tells us, a personal choice as to what films we want to make, the characters we want to see, and themes and subjects we want to tackle. But beyond that, can we as a community make a choice to use our leverage and creativity to bring Asian American films to the big screen ourselves? Or at the very least, can we mobilize as a consumer base and get not just our Asian American friends and family to watch certain films, but also all the diverse friends and co-workers that we are surrounded by everyday? Surely, a good film has universal themes that transcend race and ethnicity.

As a Taiwanese American who values the stories told by our Asian American filmmakers about our collective stories and experiences, I think we can do it.

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