I first heard of Roger Garcia, a pioneer champion of Asian American films, when I was an intern at Visual Communications in 1988. Finally, in the last decade or so, I’ve started meeting him at various film festivals all over the world. Roger and his wife Lydia Tanji began stationing in Hong Kong after his appointment last year as the executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the largest festival player in the region. Returning to Hong Kong, I touched base with Roger who warmly invited me to dinner at a tucked away Izakaya in Wanchai, the neighborhood where I grew up as a kid. It was also my first time hanging out with Lydia though we met briefly at the Hawaii International Film Festival a couple years back.
Having stayed in Hong Kong for a few days, I was mostly catching up with friends and family and was desperately seeking some kind of inspiration for a story or a blog with little luck. On top of that, my Macbook was acting up and I had to go to the most dreaded Genius Bar that usually came up with little solution other than replacing the entire computer. Meeting Roger and Lydia definitely changed my luck as I was immediately inspired talking to them about the state of Asian American filmmaking over sake, beer and tasty skewers of meat and vegetables.
“If you think about it, Ang Lee has always been an ‘old’ filmmaker. Look at his first feature Pushing Hands… even for his first feature it was about a dad,” said Roger sipping his glass of beer.
“That’s true,” I said. “If you look at his subsequent features Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. They were really from the father’s point-of-view. But then in The Ice Storm I thought he captured the kids’ lives quite vividly.”
“But then it is the key party and the idea of swinging of the adults that takes center stage.”
“That’s totally true. Cheers!” I raised my sake glass.
“If you look at Ang Lee and Wayne Wang side-by-side,” said Roger who turned down the Gingko nuts that I offered.
“Ang Lee made a career out of making movies about patriarchy whereas Wayne Wang did exactly the opposite. Wayne made his career out of matriarchy from Dim Sum to The Joy Luck Club to Anywhere but Here.”
“And I worked on both Dim Sum and The Joy Luck Club,” said Lydia and sipped her sake thoughtfully. Lydia is a costume designer and she worked on seminal works such as Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club and also Robert Altman’s The Player.
“I remember my high school classmate saw Dim Sum at the Palace in Hong Kong and he said he couldn’t understand why the filmmaker would shoot a chair for 2 minutes,” I said.
“Wayne is a much more experimental filmmaker than Ang Lee who is very commercial and mainstream. Dim Sum was very much a tribute to Ozu. Some of his works really showed his love for experimental filmmaking.”
“That’s true, because I think even in his latest film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I could see some of the narrative style leaning toward experimental filmmaking, which I think it’s intriguing but maybe not totally commercially successful.” I said.
“Chan Is Missing is a very experimental film and it’s about missing Hong Kong even though Hong Kong was never ever mentioned in the film. Essentially Wayne Wang is very much a Hong Kong filmmaker based in the U.S.”
“And so is Ang Lee,” I said. “He said he was very much an Asian filmmaker even though he has been incredibly successful in Hollywood. Nevertheless, we all consider his works to be Asian American.”
“I think it’s also a lot about being comfortable in your own skin,” said Roger. “It very much affects your filmmaking.”
Suddenly I realized that I was very much like Wayne Wang who came to the U.S. at eighteen. Although our experiences have been different and we are from different generations, we are both very much immigrant filmmakers who have started off making movies in the U.S. unlike Ang Lee who has basically made three of his first features with funding from Taiwan or in Taiwan.
While both Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, our tiger mom and kind Chinese dad, mostly made films from the parental perspective, the second generation of Asian American filmmakers such as Justin, Tze Chun, Chris Chan Lee, Rea Tajiri, Michael Kang, Eric Nakamura, Michael Aki, and I mostly made Asian American films from the children’s perspective rather than the parents’. Thematically and historically we really are the children of Asian American filmmaking.
Of course, toward the end of the evening, I had drunk a little too much sake and had both a fantastic and enlightening time thinking and talking about filmmaking in America ironically outside America… in Hong Kong where it is at once foreign and at home for me at the same time. Typically, Hong Kong is more foreign to me when I first arrive and more at home to me when I leave.
And sometimes it is perhaps necessary to get out of where you’ve been living to get a different perspective and insight of what you’re doing at home and what you can do in the hopefully brighter and better future.