Wednesday, March 22, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—The Slanted Screen Panel Discussion

Following the first screening of Jeff Adachi's documentary The Slanted Screen, the Center for Asian American Media presented a panel discussion "Is Charlie Chan Dead? Asian American Men On Screen", moderated by Darrell Hamamoto, Professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis. The panelists included documentarian Jeff Adachi, and actors Jason Scott Lee (Only The Brave), Chris Tashima (AMERICANese), and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost). My thanks to Karen Larsen and Chris Wiggum of Larsen Associates for granting me access to the panel discussion.

Considering the obstacles facing Asian American actors breaking into film, Hamamoto asked Jason Scott Lee how he felt about comments made in the documentary regarding the "pre-Jason Scott Lee era" and afterwards. Being used as a marker of how Asian American representation in film has developed is obviously flattering, Lee admitted, but had he known when he started how difficult it would be to survive as an Asian American actor, he might never have pursued an acting career. Still, he agreed with comments made in The Slanted Screen that it's not enough just to be an Asian American actor, you have to be good at what you do; you have to excel. Passion, it's been written, is a narrow lens and, charged by passion, Jason Scott Lee didn't think about being stopped when he started; he only thought about cultivating his talent, about excelling at his craft. His was the simplicity of a single-minded, nearly monastic, focus. He slept on a futon on the floor with one lamp. He practiced Tai Chi before retiring to sleep. His regimen was all about study and training because he knew that discipline develops character, which then allows depth.

Hamamoto considered the possibility of a romantic comedy with an Asian American male lead and asked each of the actors who they would like to be their leading lady. Lee was stumped. Kim—allowed to venture into the past—offered up Grace Kelley and Audrey Hepburn as his choices. Tashima knew exactly who he felt was hottest: Selma Hayak, Scarlett Johanssen and Halle Berry. The absence of any mention of an Asian American actress was quite noticeable.

Hamamoto suggested to Adachi that he should head a production company to provide vehicles for Asian American actors but Adachi was quick to assert that his job is to get people out of jail. Adachi asserts The Slanted Screen is his first and last film (perhaps because his wife was in the audience?). He graciously shares the credit with all those involved in the making of the documentary, soliciting applause for narrator Rowena Cape, and the scoring by Michael Becker.

Hamamoto was curious what responsibility successful Asian American actors had to the community of young Asian American actors breaking into the industry? Chinese-Hawaiian Jason Scott Lee had the strongest voice with regard to this. He spoke about the black box theater he has built with his own hands on his property in Hawaii which has allowed him to cultivate the talents of young actors and playwrights. Lee has a gardener's philosophy. He works his fields, grows taro and other vegetables, is completely into "green living." It is through nurturing nature that he believes creative abilities are nourished.

Daniel Dae Kim expanded upon Mako's caution in the documentary that some actors feel they have to make it first before they can do anything about Asian American representation in film. Kim asserts that it doesn't suffice to wait until one is successful; one has to give back during the process itself. He believes in collective effort and encouragement of one's peers.

Hamamoto asked which Asian American fiction would be best adapted to the screen? Kim suggested that the character of Charlie Chan should be recontextualized, reconfigured, and appropriated away from its negative cast. Hamamoto reminded him, however, that Charlie Chan's author was not Asian American. Chris Tashima suggested Laurence Yep's Dragon Wings. Jason Scott Lee referenced the Bamboo Ridge writers.

As I stepped up to Adachi after the panel discussion to introduce myself, it was heartwarming to overhear the panelists each expressing their respect and admiration to Adachi for his documentary, thanking him for fighting their fight. Adachi was glad to meet me face to face, said he loved my writing, and thanked me for my efforts on the film's behalf. I countered that my admiration for The Slanted Screen has been effortless. I look forward to its release on dvd so I may include it in my film library.


Edmund Yeo said...

Hm, interesting panel. I wonder whether any Asians, not just American Asians, but also the exports, would really make it big in the future. The track record of the likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat had been pretty spotty. Even Zhang Ziyi's Memoir of Geisha can't be called a success... or is it? Hmm..

On the other hand, Jason Scott Lee's a name I haven't seen for quite a while. Last movie I saw with him in it was Soldier with Kurt Russell. It, well, it wasn't that bad a film.

Pacze Moj said...

I think a lot of "it" also depends on the definition of "making it". Does bringing back Charlie Chan mean that Asian actors want to be seen in as many theaters by as many people as possible, or does it mean that they want to put in good performances in as many good films as possible? Industry success or craft success?

Furthermore, as your mention about lack of Asian leading ladies in Hollywood and need for adaptations of Asian American fiction suggests, are Asian actors shirking some sort of responsibility by not working with Asian writers, directors, cinematographers? Or is such a call for "encouragement of one's peers" even acceptable in a society that is trying -- or at least trying to look like it's trying -- to steer toward racial harmony?

Good post.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Jason Scott Lee was at the festival promoting Lane Nishikawa's narrative feature "Only the Brave", which I capsuled a while back.

And I agree with you, Pacze Moj, that "making it" is a relative term catering to individual definitions. The cul de sac of identity politics that you're suggesting is exactly what I brought up with Jeff Adachi when I interviewed him. Of course, people can operate on many different levels at once, no course is necessarily unilateral, and promoting Asians or Asian-Americans in film is not necessarily antithetical to working in vehicles where ethnicity is unimportant. In fact, in the documentary "The Slanted Screen" one of the talking heads is a casting agent who makes a point of saying that it is up to writers to write non-specific roles that do not require any particular ethnicity so that anyone can play them. "The Slanted Screen" also has footage of the guy who starred in "Dante's Peak", how it was great to have him in a big budget pic with his ethnicity being of no thematic import. Interestingly enough, when I got home from that long day at the festival, I elected to rest my mind by watching "The Cave" and, lo and behold, who should show up but Daniel Dae Kim!! In a role that anyone could have played. So I think that Asian American representation is working on many fronts.

Michael Guillen said...

My thanks to the Greencine Daily for picking up this entry.

Edmund Yeo said...

This is unrelated, but I've just been musing in my latest entry about having a Digg-like website for film fans, filmmakers etc. and I wonder about your opinion for this.

Michael Guillen said...

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "Digg-like website", Swifty, so I'll take a wander over and review your post before responding.