HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Feng-I Fiona Roan
COW Library : Film Festivals : Clarence Deng : HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Feng-I Fiona Roan
“Now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, ‘You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces’, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long.” – Marrite Go, director
In recent years within the entertainment industry, a slight but steady shift has occurred in the types of stories – as well as the types of creators allowed to tell them – being produced into films and TV. This allowed genre films like Get Out to become the most profitable film of 2017, and the unexpected juggernaut blockbuster Black Panther to continually exceed box office expectations for its entire theatrical run.
With growing evidence that inclusiveness and diversifying representation in media is good for the bottom line in Hollywood, many underrepresented groups are seeing themselves in major studio produced films and TV shows for the first time in decades. For Asian Americans, the family sitcom Fresh off the Boat aired in 2015 – 2 decades after All American Girl in 1994. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film with an all Asian cast in 25 years, since Joy Luck Club in 1993. While Asian American media narratives have continued outside the mainstream within independent cinema – the 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, which launched director Justin Lin’s career, is one of the most prominent examples – the growing number of projects focusing on and helmed by people of color intended for mainstream distribution is a meaningful sign of change for communities that have dealt with nearly non existent, or one-dimensional stereotypical portrayals, within mainstream media and entertainment for so long.
As Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, studios and networks are now mounting renewed efforts to elevate and curate fresh voices and visions from within the Asian American community.
One such effort from HBO, is its Asian Pacific American Visionaries contest. Now in its second year, the program provides three emerging filmmakers of Asian and/or Pacific Islander heritage a platform to showcase their talent and voices. Three short films were chosen to premiere at the DGA Theater in Hollywood on May 4, 2018 for the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival – and are now available to stream on HBO platforms until Sunday, June 10, 2018.
I spoke with all three visionaries to discuss their shorts and explore their unique voices: Maritte Go for Remittance, Feng-I Fiona Roan for Jiejie, and Huay-Bing Law for June. In part two of my series, I focus on my conversation with Feng-I Fiona Roan. [Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]
With an MFA in Directing from AFI, and having studied classical Chinese Literature at National Taiwan University, Feng-I Fiona Roan is a Taiwanese-American writer/director based in Los Angeles. Her AFI thesis Jiejie, which translates to older sister in Mandarin Chinese, was inspired by her childhood experiences living 5 years in Oregon.
Synopsis: Over the course of their first Sunday at a Chinese-American church, a young girl – insecure about her un-American look – betrays her younger sister, fueling an unprecedented outburst.
Warning: Mild spoilers follow for Jiejie.
Creative COW: This year for HBO APA Visionaries, they added a theme of “home”, which for Asian Americans is a bit nuanced geographically and socio-politically. How would you describe your film in terms of that, and how does it tie in to your experiences?
Feng-I Fiona Roan: Jiejie is about a recently immigrated family – a single mom raising two daughters on her own [with the father in Taiwan]. They're moving into a new home, experiencing challenges integrating into this new community. For immigrants, when some of your family is removed from where you're at, it's weird to call that place a home, you know? The protagonist, a young 12 or 11 year old girl, actively thinks about fitting in. She's thinking, “I want to look like everybody else, I want to look like a cool girl.”
She feels like she doesn't belong. She can't justify why she's here. She's struggling to be the same, starting with appearance. Her younger sister is annoying and everything she hates about herself: dressed the wrong way, fobby. She's embarrassed, because her family reminds her what she is: an immigrant who can't speak the language. She goes through all this trouble to say “I can fit in, I can look like them” – and fails. And her younger sister still comes in the end saying, “Look, even if you find me embarrassing, I still love you” – not vocally, but that's what it means to me. That's how she changes. She doesn't realize how wrong she's been until the very end; despite all this, her family's there for her. Home is where her family – her sister, her mother is.
In your director’s statement, you talk about your relationship with your mother and how in writing the film, you both came to a better understanding. Can you talk about that, as well as how your relationship with your sister is? Since your film is so much about the relationship between sisters as well as the mother.
We moved back to Taiwan in 2002 for health reasons; my mother has breast cancer. She had better medical care there, and my father was around. Our relationship deteriorated completely; I had a lot of academic pressure once we moved back, and my mother wasn't in an emotionally healthy situation. She’d get emotionally threatening, like emotional blackmail, which made me not want to talk about our experience in the States. Even when my mom had nostalgic moments, I would refuse to look back – until I made this film, and I interviewed them.
I was telling the story from my point of view, but it was important as a director to understand what other characters were going through, or I would have a very flat story. The main discovery during my interview with my mom was… I didn't buy that she would only emigrate because she wanted us to learn English, and put her marriage at stake. After a lot of questioning, my mom finally said, “I wanted to start over, and move away. I wanted a new life.” That’s why I added the scene where the mother was on the phone, and there’s tension between her and her husband. There were personal reasons she emigrated; it wasn't all for the children. She's on the point of breaking down, but can't complain because she wanted to come here in the first place.
And I came back to the states for grad school – I hadn't been in the states since we moved. As an adult I had to go through insurance, get a car, deal with rent, and a very intense grad school experience. Only then did I realize how much my mother went through. It was startling to see my mother in a new light. I can't imagine if I had all this pressure, not even dealing with two girls. I admired her and realized she was doing her best.
My sister, we lived very separate lives when we moved back. We went to different middle and high schools. Partly I didn't want to be in the same school as her, and neither did she. Then she came back to the states for college while I stayed in Taiwan. Our relationship got better when we were both in college. We were more mature then, and we talked about things we couldn't tell our mother; girl stuff. When I told her about the idea, she was really excited. My sister's the nostalgic kind; she's a child at heart, and she gave me a lot of details – like remembering the potluck, the church, and what people wore.
She became the makeup artist for the film. A lot of the makeup was based on our memory and photos of that time. Also, as we were making this film, we would disagree on some stuff – and she didn't have the professionalism to understand what a director is, or her duty was as a makeup artist. So she was talking to me a lot as my sister. If she disagreed with me, she’d say, “This is our story and I tell you what happened!” And I'm like… I just want to strangle her, it was such a bad idea. [laughs] But we pulled through, and it was fine. Now we talk every two or three days, and we text a lot.
We talked a bit before the interview, and you were telling me your crew was mostly Mandarin Chinese speaking. Can you talk about how this helped your process, and why this was important in making this film?
The main language of the film is Mandarin, so having a mainly Mandarin speaking crew helped facilitate communication – especially with a large cast of immigrants who can’t speak English. That was really important. My editor Zekun Mao, just the fact she speaks the language allowed her to pick up subtext between the lines. Chinese people have this thing of, well not just Chinese, but you know – you say one thing, but you really mean the other thing. It's a very polite culture, everything's very subtle, and if I only had an English speaker I may have had to do more work.
The editor brings fresh eyes; they haven't seen it, they don't know what happened on set, they're really just picking up the performance. And [Zekun] really did very well. My cinematographer [Frances Chen] speaks Mandarin, and can communicate directly with the girls. She understands what I’m trying to do, especially when I’m directing; I’m giving them directions in Mandarin, so [my cinematographer] understands and I don't have to relay that to her. Everything is more efficient.
Also, Jiejie is a story told from a young girl's perspective. It was very important to me to convey intimacy. We committed to shooting it as if it was a diary, as if we're following her. I told my cinematographer, if we can let the audience feel what it’s like as an 11 year old immigrant girl in 1997, we have succeeded. Not only were my crew Mandarin speaking, but a lot of them were female; a lot of them experienced the same thing as women. Or the fact that we've all been through some sort of immigration. The cinematographer’s family immigrated to Canada. But my editor and my production designer, they came to the States only for grad school. Even though they didn't immigrate with their family, they still had to go through some integration, just from an adult point of view. And I think it really shows in the film; our shared experience automatically puts us on the same page.
How would you say having women on set helped in other ways?
The young girls needed to stay very relaxed, since we are shooting in very close proximity to them. Often the camera is 10 to 20 inches, or even centimeters away from them or their face – and they have to act like it’s not there. It was important that the energy on set was not intrusive to them, especially in the bathtub scene. We were in a real location so it was a tiny tub, and my protagonist was only wearing a small bathing suit. Being that close… if it were a man there, I don't think she would have felt as comfortable.
Also, a director chooses crew based on their approach, and innate understanding of story. Sometimes they bring a totally fresh perspective, and that can be stimulating and good. But when I’m making something autobiographical, I need my crew to understand the story as it is. It was a naturalistic film, it's not a stylized film, so it didn't have much room for interpretation. What I needed was that [my crew] understood the story. I don't have to explain why she felt embarrassed, why she felt like she didn't belong, why she would say such terrible things to her sister. Cause they've been through it.
Walk me through your process on the film, from storyboards or shot lists to editing.
AFI requires us to do video storyboards. Instead of traditional drawn on paper storyboards, we actually film it with our iPhone, DSLR… basically we film a very rough version of what our thesis would be. We did that, and the first draft of the videos did not work; I went through a meltdown four weeks before our shoot. My editor was very involved. She sat down and analyzed with me, why some shots didn't work the way we thought it would, and she would advise.
I wanted the cuts to be as invisible as possible, because it was a naturalistic film. They had to be very well designed. I did a lot of rehearsals, and shot my rehearsals. The two girls didn't have any acting experience, so I have to not only make sure they are able to act, but with a camera in their face. Taped rehearsal means we go in with a plan; I rehearse for two hours, my DP comes in the third hour. I would show the actors the effect I wanted, but I would never show them how they look on camera. If they were sitting normally sometimes, they were too short, and you couldn't see them. We had to do a lot of cheating. I would explain to them, this is how it will look on camera. Because we were working this way they slowly understood what I was trying to get on camera and performed better.
In the end, they were so good I could tell them, “This is what I want it to look on camera”. We had two days of video storyboard on location. It’s really important if you’re doing video storyboards to do them on location. Also you have to do them with your actual cast, especially children because of their height, you can't have stand ins. When we were shooting exercises we would use stand ins, like adults, just to see how this shot worked. But I think with children you can't do that. Also, it was a learning process for them, a warm-up for them to know what you're trying to do.
I was editing beforehand. We'll edit [the rehearsal], and look at it, see if this new version works. Work with your editor, and re-edit. If something doesn't work, reshoot and work that in. Change it. And rewriting through the rehearsal, I could see some actions [were] awkward for them. Initially I had more pushing around in the story, because me and my sister were very physical. But this was not the dynamic of these two girls, they're not that comfortable. I took a lot of that out because it didn't feel real. And on set, my cinematographer got me a handheld monitor, which allowed me to be very close to the actors. I wasn’t behind a monitor with 10 people standing behind me.
It’s important to children that you're there. They're easily distracted, we have a very big set, so it was important they were always looking at me, staying concentrated. And we only had 8 hours a day to work. I think the handheld monitor really saved me on set. We learned about cut points we wanted from the video storyboards. That was very informative to the script supervisor. She had to make sure that cut point is correct, and it significantly facilitated our final editing process. Sometimes we would shorten it, find new cut points in their performance. A smile, or expression, and we always try to cut out all the fat. The final product was more concise, we worked really hard on telling this story in the shortest way possible.
How would you define your artistic voice as a director?
I think I'm early in my career, but I can tell you what interests me a lot at the moment. I love realistic, naturalistic films. I'm discovering a lot, I'm learning about different kinds of realism. So definitely that's what I'm interested in. I love Hou Hsiao-Hsien, definitely. Kore-eda, the Japanese director. Also Dardenne brothers. I got the rehearsal and filming techniques from Dardenne brothers, that's how they work.
I think I'll continue making female driven films, that's what I'm most passionate about. Eventually I’d like to film my first feature film in Taiwan, centering around the story of my immigration back – a family drama set in 2003 during the SARS epidemic. That's what I want to do. I guess you can say I love family drama. Family fascinates me because, it's something everyone has to deal with, and is one of the most fundamental relationships we have as human beings.
If you were given the chance to redo your film with the same resources you had when starting out, but with hindsight, what would you improve upon if anything?
We changed everything we could beforehand, and had two days of reshoots after six days principal. We spent a full day reshooting the tag scene. I learned my lesson – when you have ten kids running around, and you're trying to tell a story that happens during the game, it's very crazy. In our principal photography, it was a very hectic day. We managed to get our point across but the camera was so hectic, it wasn't in line with the other scene. In the reshoots, we were trying to find a balance of how to not have it so shaky but clearly tell the story. We got to fix everything we were not happy with. I don’t think I would have changed a thing, frankly.
[Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]