By Japhy Grant
Originally published on Advocate.com April 14 2008 12:00 AM ET
When you look at
out documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong’s best known
films, Licensed to Kill a searing look at
anti-gay hate crime murders and Family
Fundamentals, a tragic look at what happens when
Christian conservative parents have gay children, you
can understand how he could call his latest project,
Hollywood Chinese, a retelling of the
Chinese-American experience in Tinseltown by the people
who lived it, “a nice change of pace”. The
film, featuring interviews with Nancy Kwan,
Christopher Lee, Amy Tam, M. Butterfly writer
David Henry Hwang and out actor B.D. Wong plays in
Oakland and San Francisco through April 23rd.
What inspired you to take on this film? I finished 10 years of intense filmmaking with
Licensed to Kill and Family Fundamentals.
It was nice to do a project with people I actually
like! Talking to all the people in this film was such
a joy. They made me laugh, made me smile. I loved working on
it. You know, it’s a film about race and
representation and sexuality. And it’s a film
about Hollywood, the glamour and the sets. I always wanted
to be a film historian as a kid. For me it was a trip
back in time and I think it was important to tell he
story before the it faded away.
Did you learn anything from the making of the film
about Hollywood or being a Chinese American that you
didn’t know before? The thing that [Hollywood’s] all about
-- money -- really came to the forefront.
There are considerate people who want to do the right
thing, but it’s ultimately about the bottom line and
the box office. It’s about if they can make
money off of you and if they can, they will.
I have a confession to make. I love Charlie Chan.
When I was a kid I had the chicken pox and my Mom rented
me Charlie Chan films and I felt guilty as I got
older about having liked the movies so much. You watched Charlie Chan while you had chicken
Yeah, I think I’ve seen every one. That’s hilarious. That’s really
great. How do you discuss a film like Charlie Chan?
It does show what it’s like to be
Chinese-American in a lot of ways, even though, you know, it
had yellowface and all that.
Yeah, and Charlie Chan really does talk like a
fortune cookie. But he’s smarter than everyone!
He’s smarter than the police and other
detectives and he always solves the case. And of course,
“Number One Son.” He was on the swim
team, he was a college graduate. I can’t believe
it. You shouldn’t feel guilty at all!
It’s interesting how much sexuality plays a part
in Chinese American cinema, especially when it comes to
the guys and the whole notion of Asian
masculinity. I love the things that David Henry
Hwang says. And B.D. Wong. There’s a guy that really
sums it up for you. He’s someone who’s
really had to struggle with both racism and his sexuality
and he’s now played this wide range of
different roles. It seems to have helped him. Plus,
you know -- he’s so hot. It’s so interesting
to see how sexuality changes from generation to
generation. One of the things that interested me was
the photos of Marion Wong [who’s 1916 silent film,
The Curse of Quon Gwon is now acknowledged as
the first Chinese-American film ever made] and the women
around her and they’re all wearing pants, which
in that time was just not something women did.
There’s a part of me that goes, “What is the
story there?” and of course, that story is now
lost to history because they’re gone.
One of the running themes all the people in this
movie talk about is how there’s always this
element of fantasy and the exotic attached to
Chinese Americans. And even when the film talks about
how empowering martial arts movies were. They’re still martial arts films. I admit
there was a period of time where I thought it was
great that I could walk down the street and people
would assume I knew kung-fu. I think it’s important
there is some sense of control or influence on these
products from Hollywood that go out into the world to
make sure that it’s meaningful or at the very least
It is strange how America doesn’t seem to
consider other forms of racism and discrimination
because at times it seems that it’s so
caught up in the historical black and white divide. Absolutely. Even Obama makes that mistake. He
talks about making the world a better place for black
people and white people and what; all these other
marginalized people just go over to the side? Whether it gay
people or Chinese Americans, it’s the same.
Now that you’ve finished Hollywood Chinese,
what do you see yourself doing next? I just became a father and I love being a
father. I don’t want to call him a project, but
you’re so many things when you’re a father, a
P.A.[production assistant], a crafts service person, a
costume designer, a production coordinator, but never
a director, because he’s the boss. Hollywood
Chinese took about twice the time it took to make
the other films because I could no longer burn the midnight
candle. You know, he gets up at five, so you get up at five.