On Friday, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival hosted the premiere of the three winning shorts of HBO’s first-ever APA Visionaries competition.
The shorts, in their premiere showing, proved personal — from first-place winner Dinh Thai’s “Monday” to Tiffany Hsu’s “Wonderland” and Jinyi Shao’s “Toenail,” all were stories of families, both broken and taken for granted, and of sacrifices.
“APA Visionaries is a great example of HBO’s industry leadership in not only furthering the dialogue about race and representation in Hollywood, but also taking action,” said Jackie Gagne, vice president of HBO’s multicultural marketing.
“Westworld” actor Leonardo Nam, who is the competition’s second-year ambassador, said platforms like Visionaries from large networks like HBO are rare opportunities for young and emerging filmmakers. “[Platforms] that are legit, and that have resonance to a larger community as a whole,” he said, are always needed.
“What I’m trying to focus on is, where do we go as a community next? How can we do this together, even bigger?” Nam said. “We still have a long way to go, but the important thing to remember is that we keep telling our stories.”
His message to visionaries who might be considering entering the competition for the 2017-2018 year? “Calling all filmmakers, all artists: Get out there and do it,” he said. “Now is the time, now is the opportunity.”
Director/writer Andy Dinh’s “Monday,” starring Kevin David Lin in his first acting role, is the first-place winner of the competition. We meet Kwan, a fast-talking contraband dealer with a network of connections through town, but never quite understand why he works at it so hard until we learn that, when it comes to it, family comes first.
Dinh, whose body of work is largely comprised of commercial work for brands like Toyota, T-Mobile and Adidas, was born in Vietnam and raised in Southern California.
Why did you decide to enter the competition? What was that process like?
Thai: Kevin, did you realize that there was an HBO APA Visionaries program?
Lin: I actually did. I had heard about it, and the acting school that I go to, they encourage a lot of us actors to make films, so I had wanted to make one. I had intentions to write something with my friends and actually do something, as a filmmaker. When I got cast in this, I was elated, because I was like, I don’t have to write or do anything. I had the easiest job — I just had to act!
Thai: A couple of our friends were always making films, so they inspired me to make something of my own. We were fortunate enough to have our production company (Art and State), so we were in the groove of making things. When we heard about the contest, we said, let’s give it a shot. See what happens. We started writing, and we went into pre-production and literally a week before we were going to shoot, we had everything worked out, but I still questioned if we should do it. There’s always doubt as an artist. For me, and I’m sure it’s the same for Kevin, we’re always doubting ourselves.
Lin: Criticizing ourselves.
Thai: Thanks to HBO, they really gave us an opportunity to shine and just go for it. It means a lot to us.
Let’s talk about your use of music in the short. It lent a lot to building Kevin’s character, I thought, and how he interacts with this layered world.
Thai: There’s a saying that sound and audio is more important than picture. We believe in that, and I believe in that. Music is a character. It tells the audience how to feel, how to react, and it gives the audience a gauge of what emotion they should be experiencing. We were lucky enough to get a couple of songs that were already written, one of which is from Diamonique [Noriega, who also acts in the short.] She was kind enough to give it to the project. Picking music is important.
Lin: What the music did for me is, when I’m looking at the takes, the emotion or whatever idea that’s supposed to be there — I can’t see it because I’m looking at myself, but then you see the cut and I see the music that impacts a lot more for me. I thought that was really cool. It was a relief to see that. The music helped with making me look better.
Thai: One thing that Kevin mentioned is that we didn’t have enough time to do a lot of takes, so his satisfaction level as an actor wasn’t always quite there. That’s always tough. But as a filmmaker, you know that you have some of those other tools to help problem-solve those situations. You know you’re going to cut, you know you’re going to have those second angles, you know you’re going to have music.
What has it been like to watch the conversation about issues like underrepresentation and whitewashing in Hollywood become a focal point of interest? How has it affected your filmmaking?
Lin: For me, it fires me up. That’s my whole passion. That’s why I’m here. As I get older, I more and more realize the effect that mass media has on me, as a child growing up, and me, how I perceive myself as a person in the society I grew up in. So I care very, very much. These kinds of things encourages me and makes me want to just do more.
Thai: There’s this sort of unwritten rule in commercial directing, when you’re working with ad agencies. The rule is: Get the job first. And then present the agency with your ideas. So what we have to do as Asian Americans for filmmaking in Hollywood is that we have to get the job first, and then we can start f–cking with you guys.
In “Wonderland,” director Tiffanie Hsu places a young 12-year-old girl — played by Audrey Hui, daughter of Joan Chen, who also appears as her mother in the short — in the middle of a Las Vegas casino on Christmas day, where she is forced to face the isolation that stems from her father’s absence, as well as her mother’s crippling gambling addiction.
Hsu, a Harvard grad, assisted Ang Lee for “Life Of Pi” and is a participant of the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women, and a recipient of the Excellence in Short Filmmaking Award at the Asian American International Film Festival.
Director Tiffanie Hsu, left, and Audrey Hui (Courtesy photo)
What made you submit to this competition?
Hsu: Having HBO be a part of this is really amazing, to have the support from such a leader in the industry. The fact that we always talk about how difficult it is to be an Asian filmmaker, how to difficult it is to be a female filmmaker — if you don’t put yourself out there, when these opportunities arise, then you have no right to say anything.
It’s been disheartening to see the numbers, the statistics, of the women filmmakers who actually get to direct major projects in Hollywood.
Hsu: The most important thing is that people are talking about it. Obviously, having an open dialogue has to lead to some kind of action. The open dialogue is the first step. It’s really good that people are still keeping tabs on it. It’s possible to be like, ‘Oh, everyone’s talking about it, the problem’s being addressed.’ But having hard numbers that show it’s not, that means we have to stay on top of it, and stay accountable.
And these discussions about whitewashing, and about representation, too.
Hsu: This conversation is really important to me. I can remember — it’s hard to feel like that conversation is not a part of my experience. The fact that people are talking about it, it’s so inspiring. I wouldn’t be able to sit back. I don’t always have the answers, but continuing to act and not giving up is probably the most important thing we can do.
Hui: This was my first project. I want to pursue more things. Especially with my mom being Asian and a woman, we talk about it a lot as a problem. From a young age, we’ve talked about it, and it’s become more apparent to me over time.
Tell me about being here, at this film festival, as a part of the kick-off of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Hsu: It’s amazing. It makes me feel so proud to be Asian American, something I feel almost all the time anyways, but to feel so celebrated at this time is something we need more of. It’s so exciting. I would say that the LAAPFF always feels like a home to me. My first film also played here. So to come back means a lot, and now to be able to introduce HBO’s program as a part of that family is — I just feel so lucky.
Hui: This is crazy. I feel like filming it flew by so fast, and then in between time, school was busy. I did not expect to be here, skipping school on a Friday.
“Toenail,” a story of a Korean American father and son who may not always see eye-to-eye, is directed by the Shanghai-born, New Jersey-raised Jingyi Shao (another commercial director who’s beginning his transition into feature filmmaking) and stars Justin Lee (you may know him best as Annyong from “Arrested Development.”)
Director Jingyi Shao, left, and Justin Lee (Courtesy photo)
How do you two know each other?
Shao: [Justin] was in a commercial I shot.
Lee: We were doing McDonald’s.
Shao: I had no idea who he was. Ironically, one of the key grips who ended up doing “Toenail,” he pointed him out. He said, ‘Yo, that’s Annyeong from ‘Arrested Development!’’ I had never seen “Arrested Development.”
Lee: I’m like, way taller now. I’ve got glasses.
When you saw HBO was doing this APA Visionaries program, what made you think, “OK. I’ve gotta go for that”?
Shao: I had the idea about two months before they announced this competition. I said to myself, “That’s a cool idea. I like that.” In my head. I have a lot of ideas in my head, and I choose projects based on their viability. To me, it wasn’t viable. I was like, where can I send this? And then [Justin] posted on his Facebook about the competition. It occurred to me that it would be perfect for the idea I had, and I thought Justin would be perfect for the kind of role I was imagining. So I kind of just saw it as a divine shoutout. Like, this is probably one of the most personal stories you’ve ever written, and you should make it, because we’ve been given an opportunity. And here we are. It’s crazy.
Lee: The competition couldn’t have come at a better time. I posted that on Facebook, and I was hitting the lab, looking at all the ideas I’d written. What am I going to shoot? What am I going to make for this? Nothing seemed to quite fit, and literally the next day I get a message from Jing. He said, “I’ve got this script, I’ve got this idea, I want to run it by you.” The timing worked out perfect, and opportunities are slim, and you’ve got to take advantage of this.
Right, because there aren’t as many platforms as there should be. What has it been like to watch, as creators, as discussion about Asian American representation and whitewashing has become mainstream?
Lee: I’m never the one to cry victim. So rather than point the finger and point blame at anyone, for me it just inspires me to work harder, and to push harder. Clearly, we are moving in the right direction, and we have support from amazing organizations like HBO and this film festival. As long as you keep pushing, as long as you keep grinding away, I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off.
Shao: This is why me and Justin get along so well, because we love our craft. We love it. It is a endless craft. You can always be better at what you do. For us, we are so grateful that that conversation is being held, but for us, we have such a long journey before we’re in our final form. In fact, it’s probably never going to happen. So for us to already be able to work on it is an amazing privilege. To be able to live in Los Angeles, to be surrounded by people who support us, to be able to make something like this is incredible. We’re grateful. There’s not that many of us, but that can only mean that there will be more of us. A lot of us are coming of age right now. You need to put in your time. You need to put in your 10,000 hours, and people are coming up on their 10,000 hours. We’re going to be a sudden explosion of Asian Americans not just in media as actors and filmmakers, but as musicians, artists, fashion — if you look, they’re there. And we’re only going to be more and more present. We work too hard, and we grind too hard for that not to happen. In the United States, we have to remember that despite all the difficulties and all the history, the U.S. — there are examples of people doing the impossible. And that just reminds us that it’s doable. And if it’s doable, then I’ve gotta do it.
Lee: I couldn’t agree more. Not everyone’s dealt the same hand, but if you were born here, and you have had the life that Jing and I have had, then we’re blessed and fortunate to have first-world problems. That inspires us more than enough to keep going.