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.