Chinese Culture Center Research Fellow, Victor Liu, had the unique opportunity to speak with Ray Yeung, the gay, Chinese filmmaker behind Front Cover. Spoilers below.
What inspired Front Cover?
I’m born in Hong Kong, I was sent to study in an English boarding school. I was the only Asian kid there amongst a white environment. Daily, people would say things like “chinky” or “Chinaman” as I was walking past. It was difficult. I was trying to fit in, so I was trying to act as white as possible. I used to lie to the kids, saying things like, “We don’t actually eat rice all the time, it’s a fallacy” – distancing myself from Chinese culture as much as possible, because that was the joke!
What’s more, later on, when I came out, in the gay scene, it was also very hard to be Asian because the classic male beauty is a white image, blonde hair, blue eyes, tall, handsome, like Michelangelo – that classical look. They never feature Asian men. As time went by, I still felt like an outsider.
I wanted to create a story based on a character, Ryan, with that 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 the character, Ryan, was a very pointed critique of a lot of the people in the gay Asian community. I was wondering what kinds of reaction you were hoping to get from people like Ryan and the gay Asian community in general in their seeing this movie.
A lot of gay Asians, they only date white men, not necessarily because they’re consciously racist, but 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. You upgraded yourself, you belong to another class. Even in Hong Kong, it is this way, as it was formerly a British colony. There were – and still are – a lot of Asians that will only date expats as a way to climb the ladder. There’s this economical reason for it.
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.” From relating to this movie, I hope that people can open their eyes a little bit and look at the issues.
Speaking about the takeaways of the audience in relation to this movie, I was wondering how the bittersweet ending, one of the most salient and interesting parts of the movie, played into the overall message and ideas that you want to convey to your audience.
I feel like it’s better to have an ending that makes the audience think a little bit. In this situation, one character decides to accept himself, and one character decides not to. The audience in the cinema can decide, “Oh, who do I want to be? Am I willing to sacrifice my family, my career, my social status to be myself?” If you tie it all up as a happily ever after, the audience will be satisfied but won’t reflect.
It’s also being loyal to the characters – we wrote different endings, and we thought it wouldn’t be truthful for Ning to just give up his career and stay in America or go back to China. In China and in Asia, if you want to be a public figure, if you want to play male romantic leads and action heroes – and you come out – it’s possibly going to ruin your career! 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. In that way, it’s not a completely depressing ending.
I was wondering if you could speak a little about intraracial or intraethnic cultural clash, because there are so many moments of cultural clash in the movie. One of my favorite scenes is when Ryan’s Cantonese parents are awkwardly trying to communicate with the Putonghua-speaking Ning. There are so many movies that treat China as this homogenous place, despite there being a long history of internal conflicts.
A lot of Hong Kong people feel some loyalty to the British or that they’re more Westernized, viewing Chinese people as communist and less sophisticated. And for immigrants that have been in America for a long time, people who’ve grown up in Chinatown, versus those who’ve just arrived – I also think that contrast is very interesting. In Toronto, a lot of the older immigrants come from Hong Kong and are very assimilated and Canadian. But now, there are so many new immigrants to Canada from China.
This contrast between old immigrants and new immigrants is also what was the inspiration for writing this story. A friend of mine, an estate agent in New York, all his life, he’s been selling apartments on the Upper East Side to these rich people and thinking of himself as very glamorous. Now, a lot of his clients are from China, and they’re buying up all these penthouses. All his life, he’d been trying to detach from his Chinese culture and the Chinese people, and now he has to face them – not just face them, but serve them! He’s very sensitive to it, possibly because he sees things in them that remind him of his parents or grandparents – it becomes particularly annoying to him.
One of the other more interesting moments in the movie was the Tiananmen Square July 4 moment, when Ning talked positively about his father who served in the army. I was wondering if you could expand upon that part of the movie, which is interesting because you’re from Hong Kong and you have a different vantage point.
I remember once I was talking to a friend from China, and we talked about Tiananmen Square. He said he knew a little about it, but he didn’t know the whole truth, he said, “None of us were there, I don’t think any of us can come to a conclusion and make such a statement.” I was a little taken back! It seemed like he was denying it. But after we talked, I came to understand that he never really had that much information as he was growing up. And now, after he and others come to America, when people talk about the incident, it’s almost like an insult to his country. He’s never had all the information, so the only thing he can do is defend it.
I put it in the movie because I wanted to show that Ning, the character from China, has a very different opinion of the whole incident, particularly because his father was in the army.
In terms of the filmmaking process, production, circulation, display – processes behind the scene – because you’re making a film about a very underrepresented group of people, and because you’re a minority yourself, could you talk about the difficulties and discriminations you’ve faced in the industry side of things?
If you’re gay and you’re Asian in the West, you expect hurdles all along. Not just in terms of homophobia and racism in the industry. It has to do with your thinking – you’re what you make. Right off the bat, I’m not in sync with the mainstream industry. The industry is still very homophobic, and certainly, certainly, very racist. I won’t hold back on that. I want media to reflect the world we live in, but people don’t want to see the world as it is. Aren’t they bored, seeing middle-class, Caucasian stories over and over again?
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 Scorcese, 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. If you want to pigeonhole me, so be it. It doesn’t stop me. I was never going to make romantic comedies about Julia Roberts falling in love.
With this, I think I’m very lucky to get distribution and that there are people who believe in us. 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.
Could you talk about the importance of representation in media, on-screen and behind-the-scenes, perhaps in relation to the Matt Damon controversy that’s happened recently?
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? And with regard to Matt Damon – can’t he just say no?
There was this one incident in the U.K., the Royal Shakespeare Company, they were doing this ancient Chinese play, but they cast all Caucasians to play the leads. When the actors complained, the Company said they couldn’t find talented Asian leads and said that the Asian actors were just sour grapes for not getting the part. The critics who wrote about this said the Company was in the right because the production was actually fabulous.
With regard to whitewashing, Asians have a responsibility to make change. A lot of these 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% of the audiences there are Caucasian. Where are the Asians? Who do you expect to support the work if not you?
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?
New York is important because it’s so diverse. 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. Ryan pretending that his parents are from a middle-class family, Ning pretending he’s straight.
With regards to your film and filmography, I was wondering if you had specific films and directors that you admire or are trying to invoke or are influenced by?
Well the one director that I always love is Pedro Almodovar because his work is really interesting. The one movie that I like is Law of Desire. There are all these bizarre characters, but you start to identify with them and relate to the emotions that they go through. There is always a humor to it and a way in which it’s heightened and melodramatic – at the end there’s even a murder – there’s so much of that gay sensibility.
Cut Sleeve Boys, my very first movie, was very much influenced by his work, like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The way that I shot it, the color, cross-dressing, the quirky, comedic elements with a melodramatic twist – the whole thing is like a circus or a funfair. With Front Cover, I picked a slightly different approach. It’s not as heightened. Pedro Almodovar’s works, as he got older, also became more and more subdued.