Their films have played at thousands of venues and toured the world several times over — from Cannes to Taiwan and Los Angeles to the Russia. They’ve received numerous awards, from the Peabody and Golden Reel awards to Sundance and Slamdance honors, and they have also been nominated for Oscars — one even received one. These filmmakers are continuing to demonstrate their talent behind the camera and their numbers are growing. You get the picture or, rather, they make the pictures. They are women, they are of Asian descent and they are directors.
In a country where a mere 7 percent of the big films released each year are directed by women, it may seem all the more daunting as an Asian American woman to pursue a career as a director. “Most people have a really hard time making a living as a filmmaker,” notes director Jennifer Phang, whose feature film Half-Life recently debuted at Sundance. “You have to really, really want to do it. It’s not for everyone.”
Veteran filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña concurs: “Filmmaking is a difficult craft, involving the intellect, the imagination, people skills, emotion, collaboration, business acumen.” Yet just a cursory search will reveal many Asian American women like Phang who are helming projects, raising funds, setting up production companies and receiving accolades while doing so. Whether they work in film, video or animation, shoot shorts, documentaries or feature films, these talented female filmmakers are bringing their vision to the small and big screen with a vengeance like no time before.
Some have been in the business for decades — often playing double duty as writer and director — while others are just starting out making a name for themselves on the film festival circuit with their short flicks. There are a few whose names you may already know. Karyn Kusama is one, the woman behind indie favorite Girlfight (2000) and, more recently, the live-action version of Æon Flux (2005). And who could forget actress and Chinese transplant Joan Chen’s moving directorial debut Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1998), which garnered many international awards.
And there is, of course, Los Angeles–based filmmaker Jessica Yu, who won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996), a moving look at the life of the writer stricken with polio. She told the crowd during her acceptance speech, “You know you’ve entered new territory when your outfit cost more than your film.” Since then she has continued to work as a director in film and TV. Her latest feature, Ping Pong Playa (2007), couldn’t be more different than Breathing Lessons, featuring a young, suburban Asian American guy who’s forced to take over running his mother’s ping pong classes. In fact, it couldn’t be more different than any film out.
“As an Asian American woman you have a unique perspective and that will inform your work,” says Kimi Takesue, director Summer of the Serpent (2004) and Heaven’s Crossroad (2002) whose films have screened at more than 200 festivals and museums internationally. “It’s vital that the perspectives and sensibilities of Asian American women be represented on the screen.”
Certainly a large percentage of films by today’s female directors deal with Asian American themes and personalities. Phang, for instance, casts a lot of Asian Americans in her films, which often have Asian American gay themes. “I’m pretty committed to involving the Asian American face just because it’s something I’ve grown up around and I feel Asian Americans have been underrepresented.” And many of her colleagues no doubt share the sentiment. Anita Wen-Shin Chang’s films cover various Asian communities here and abroad, in such films as Joyful Life (2007), about a leprosy colony in Taipei, and her short, One Hundred Eggs a Minute (1996), about a second-generation Chinese-American woman working in her family’s fortune cookie factory.
Last year also saw the release of two documentaries from first-time filmmakers: Elaine Mae Woo’s Anna May Wong explores the life of the Hollywood screen legend, and Ermena Vinluan’s award-winning Tea & Justice profiles three diminutive Asian women in the NYPD. But Asian American female directors are also showing their versatility in tackling an array of issues. Kathy Huang has directed five short films, ranging from Miss Chinatown, U.S.A. (2007) following a Chinese American pageant competitor to Night Visions (2005), dealing with the memories of a U.S. soldier who served in Iraq. And Grace Lee, whose entertaining documentary The Grace Lee Project (2005) had her connecting with women around the world who share the same name, shifts gears with American Zombie (2007), opening in late March in Los Angeles, which Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir calls “a media satire and, in the end, a creepy horror flick.”
But before these directors even held a camera, there were many Asian American female directors who helped pave their way to the coveted director’s chair. Since the late seventies, the works of film and video artist Janice Tanaka have been exhibited around the world — twelve pieces and counting — including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea and the Finnish National Gallery. When asked if she could select the highlight of her career, Tanaka says, “ it’s always the piece you’re working on.” For now, it is a short piece incorporating film, video and animation, entitled The Ever-Present Gap, which delves into religion, philosophy and science and “questions why we believe the things we believe.”
Southern California–raised Tajima-Peña and Chinese filmmaker Christine Choy received an Oscar nomination for their documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), about the beating death of a Chinese American in Detroit. The film is among the most notable works by Asian American women to date, and an incredible accomplishment at the time. “In the early 1980s, the doors were virtually closed to Asian Americans,” recalls Tajima-Peña. “There were almost no role models at the time. Asian Americans just did not go into filmmaking.” But that didn’t stop either filmmaker from going on to successful careers. Tajima-Peña’s documentary My America... or Honk If You Love Buddha (1997) was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and did receive the prize for Cinematography. “I decided documentary was a way to talk about injustice, maybe even help do something about it,” she adds. Her latest doc, Calavera Highway (2008), about her husband's Mexican American family, will make its festivals round this year and is set for broadcast on the PBS’s POV series in the fall.
Then there’s Emiko Omori, who has been working in the film industry since the late sixties. Originally a cinematographer, practically one of a kind as an Asian American woman and an award-winning one at that, it wasn’t until decades later did she direct (and write) her first documentary/memoir, Rabbit in the Moon (1999), for which she received, like Tajima-Peña, Sundance cinematography honors. Since then she definitely has the directing bud, Omori hasn’t wasted time putting out more. She currently has three films on the festival circuit: Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm (2007), 7,500 Miles to Redemption (2007) and Ripe for Change (2005).
These individuals are just a fraction of the growing community of Asian American female directors producing films showing at theatre of festival near you. And Lee couldn’t imagine a better job. “I like being the leader of a project and guiding a film from the idea stage to production, to post, to watching it with an audience,” she shares. “It’s exciting to work with actors and other members of the creative team and see how the end product changes or stays true to the original concept. It’s just a joy to work with so many creative people all the time.”
For filmmaker Kimi Takesue, being a director allowed her to bring all her passions together: “I enjoy filmmaking because it integrates multiple interests in cinematography, writing, music, and overall storytelling. It's satisfying to express a personal vision through film and to create work that can impact and resonate with an audience.
However Tajima-Peña stresses the importance of craft over fame. “It’s a very, very hard life, very unstable and you have to have a thick skin because there is constant rejection. But those who have the calling will do it no matter what. I’d say you should really focus on developing your craft, which I find less and less a priority for artists these days,” she says. “Because the technology makes it easier for everyone and anyone to ‘make a movie’ combined with the hype around moviemaking — people just seem to want instant success. Get into festivals, win awards, get instant recognition. It was better when I was starting out, in some ways, because no one paid any attention to Asian American filmmakers so we didn't have the pressure of success. We made movies in spite of the industry.”
So to all you aspiring filmmakers, listen up because here’s what you need if you want to join their ranks. “Persistence, educating yourself and searching for your vision,” says Omori. Seek out good people, on the other hand, is what Grace Lee suggests. “Find your collaborators early on and don't be afraid to ask for help. And help other people! It will come back around,” she says. “So many people think they can do everything themselves when most of the fun comes from letting people do what they do best.”