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What We Have In Common

What We Have In Common


Filmmaker Arthur Dong's new documentary Hollywood Chinese, explores the complicated relationship between Chinese culture and American Cinema

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 pox? Really?

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 accurate.

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.

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