Why Do You Make Heterosexual Movies?
Hong Kong filmmaker Ray Yeung has a reputation for taking no prisoners. Unapologetically gay and proudly Asian, his work tackles the complexities of cross-cultural identity and queerness with a refreshingly astute wit and depth. His film Front Cover (2015) centers on Ryan, a Chinese-American, gay fashion stylist who distances himself from his heritage to fit in – but a work assignment with rising Chinese movie star Ning leads him to reconnect with and reconcile his nationality, race, and sexuality. Writer and curator Viv Liu speaks to Yeung about identity, the pressure to conform to expectations and what the film means to him.
What inspired Front Cover?
I was born in Hong Kong, but I was sent to study in an English boarding school. I was the only Asian kid there among a white environment. People would call me things like “chinky” or “Chinaman.” I was trying to fit in, so I was trying to act as white as possible, distancing myself from Chinese culture as much as possible. Later on, when I grew up and came out, in the New York gay scene, it was also very hard to be Asian. As time went by, I still felt like an outsider.
I wanted to create a story based on this character, Ryan, with a similar kind of upbringing and attitude, someone distant from his culture and alienated from his heritage. What happens to him now when he meets Ning? I felt like Ryan was a very pointed critique of a lot of the people in the gay Asian community. A lot of gay Asians only date white men because of internalized racism. Dating white guys seems to show that you’re more sophisticated, that you don’t hang out with the Asians in the paddy fields. I hope that people can open their eyes a little bit. I was happy that a lot of the audience came up to me after the movie and said, “Oh my god, when I was younger, I used to do exactly the same thing.”
Could you speak a little about the culture clash within the label Chinese? One of my favorite scenes is when Ryan’s Cantonese parents are awkwardly trying to communicate with the Putonghua-speaking Ning.
These contrasts were also what was the inspiration for writing this story. A lot of Hong Kong people feel some loyalty to the British or that they’re more Westernized, viewing mainland Chinese people as less sophisticated. Same for immigrants that have been in America for a long time, people who’ve grown up in Chinatown, versus those who’ve just arrived.
The ending of the film is bittersweet. How does this play into your message?
One character decides to accept himself, and one character decides not to. The audience can decide, Who do I want to be? Am I willing to sacrifice my family, my career, my social status to be myself?
It’s also being loyal to the characters. We thought it wouldn’t be truthful for Ning to just give up his career and stay in America or go back to China. For Ryan, although this particular relationship doesn’t work for him, it’s good that he learned something and is more prepared for his next relationship.
Asian representation in American cinema is a hot topic at the moment, particularly the issue of whitewashing. Could you talk about the importance of onscreen representation?
It’s always the same arguments – that they can’t find an Asian actor who has the box office draw or the experience to play the lead. If you don’t give them enough work, how are they going to build a box office draw or have enough experience? With regard to whitewashing, Asians also have a responsibility to make change. A lot of Asians are very, very complacent. I talked to some actors and they say, “Well, it’s changing, it’s getting better.” Hello? This should have been done 20 years ago! Get angrier! East West Players, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Chinglish on Broadway – 75% ofthe audiences there are Caucasian. Who do you expect to support the work if not you? Have you faced any difficulties and discrimination in the film industry?
If you’re gay and you’re Asian in the West, you expect hurdles. It has to do with your thinking – you are what you make. Right off the bat, I’m not in sync with the mainstream industry. I want media to reflect the world we live in, but this industry doesn’t want to see the world as it is. I get these people who ask me, “Do you just want to make gay movies? Do you just want to make Asian movies?” So I say, “Do you ask Martin Scorsese, do you want to make Italian movies all your life? Why do you want to make heterosexual movies?” I just want to make movies about my point of view.
I think I’m very lucky to get distribution. Getting out there is hard because we just don’t have the publicity or the budget. It’s really very grassroots, reaching out with word of mouth or with social media. All my co-producers on this film are Asian. As long as you keep on working, you are eventually going to be able to be in power so you can help other people make films about your own stories.
Besides the opportunity for the pun in the title, what do you think was the purpose of the New York City and fashion world backdrops?
When you think about Harlem, Chinatown, and 5th Avenue, there really are two extremes. Ryan grew up in Chinatown and his parents run a nail salon, pretty much at the bottom of the social hierarchy. His dream is to work in fashion, which is the most glamorous and high-class industry. Ryan’s job in the film is a fashion stylist – he actually changes your image to appear more acceptable to the world. Styling is such a bizarre thing, a very modern phenomenon. This parallels the story, which is about putting up fronts to make the world see you as acceptable.
Words: Viv Liu
Translation: Will Dai
Article originally written in English. Images are from the internet.
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