One Year After the SFIAAF, Asian Film/Independent Sound
-- Chris Chan Lee on "Yellow"
by Amanda N. Nanawa
The 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
(SFIAAFF) closed last Thursday night, proving the existence of a
diverse, Asian American, multinational, and multicultural audience for
Asian-themed film. With 24 sold-out features including the Opening
Night youth hit, “Kelly Loves Tony“, the Filipino-American “Disoriented“
and “Fakin’ Da’ Funk” which stars Pam Grier and Ernie Hudson, the San
Francisco festival remains an important event for both Asian filmmakers
and the entire community. At last year’s festival, one of the stand out
films was Chris Chan Lee’s feature film “Yellow” which went on to
compete at Slamdance ‘98. With theatrical distribution now set in
Canada and strong hopes for a U.S. release, “Yellow” is one of the
SFIAAFF’s success stories.
A writer, director, and musician, Lee had a vision to make a film about
a group of Asian American teens living out all American dilemmas. He
wanted his characters to transcend beyond the cultural stereotypes, and
become people with an identity rather than insipid stereotypes. The
title is loaded with meaning, drawing upon such jargon as cowardice or
racial discrimination. But the film allows its characters to set an
example and show responsibility to everyone, regardless of culture.
Asian Week quoted Lee as saying that Western audiences regard Asians on
film as characters that are stiff or controlled. Sometimes tagged as the
“generAsian-X” film or a Korean “American Graffiti“, “Yellow” is simply
a coming-of-age comedy that does not betray the wild, loud, and
spontaneous personalities teenagers are prone to showing
indieWIRE: How did being a filmmaker and musician help you to make
Chris Lee: It helped in terms of planning ahead, rhythm, and structure.
I think editing and music are very similar in terms of the structural
approach. I think, being a musician gave me a lot of shortcuts, knowing
how to plan ahead to finally fit the sequences together.
In the actual sound mixing process, we only had a month to do the entire
soundtrack. We had to remix all the dialogue from hand. We did it on a
really primitive editing system out in Madison, Wisconsin of all places
iW: Was it cheaper to edit in Wisconsin?
Lee: Yeah, ‘cause a friend of mine (whom we) met at film school was
based in Wisconsin. He had his own recording studio; a tiny place
(where) they would produce a lot of local radio spots and shows. We made
a deal and that was I would shoot his features as a D.P. and then he, in
turn, would be my post production supervisor on my film.
So, when we were using the music, it was the last four days of the
mixing process. It was this mad rush of making phone calls and making
sure that all the bands were cool with it; just making instant decisions
as far as what pieces would go in what parts of the film.
iW: In the end credits of the film, it was made apparent that the music
came from Asian American musicians. Was that by accident or was that
something you had in the back of your mind — wanting to use Asian
American musicians for the film?
Lee: Yeah. It’s weird because it’s not that I really want to pigeon hole
these musicians as being Asian American artists, but obviously I made a
conscious decision to use as much of their music as possible. Over the
last couple years, I’ve seen and heard so many different bands that were
comprised of Asian American members. And I felt like “wow, this is so
diverse. It would be great to showcase it.” The whole story and setting
of “Yellow” is very much from Asian American perspectives, so I thought
it would be a great way for the music to enhance that. Especially being
a teen youth comedy, or a youth film, I thought it would be really
important to have lots of music in there.
iW: Were most of these musicians friends of yours?
Lee: Most of them I had not spoken with until that last part of mixing
the film, so I sort of knew them. They sorta had an idea that I might do
their stuff because I contacted them a month before saying, “Hey, you
know, I’m gonna be doing my soundtrack. Why don’t you send me your c.d.
or tape, maybe send a new song or write something. . .”. There were a
couple of people, like Asian American journalists, who were very tied
into the music scene where there are Asians or whatever, and they sent
me in the right direction. Like this guy Ben Kim in Chicago, he’s like
the godfather of Asian American rock bands. He got me in touch with lots
iW: So, you didn’t really spend much money on master rights or anything
of that matter.
Lee: No, very little. Hopefully, once we get the distribution deal down
— domestically — (they’ll attempt) to print a c.d. soundtrack together
and at that point, the artist will finally get their back end out of it.
That’ll be a great way to cross-promote the film and promote the
iW: The film has distribution in Canada?
iW: Any word yet on when it’ll be distributed in the United States,
either through cable, videocassette or theatrical?
Lee: We have guaranteed theatrical in Canada and we actually, right now,
have pending international distribution; we’re in the contractual stage
right now. We have strong interests in domestic theatrical; that’s still
our goal here. It’s taken some time because we’ve been on the film
festival circuit for some time. And then down the line, I anticipate
that we’ll have cable t.v. release. I don’t know about video yet. And
then way, way down the line, we have a guaranteed educational
distribution deal in which I’ve gotten tons of inquiries from colleges.
Eventually, it will reach its core audience.
iW: That’s interesting. An educational deal for “Yellow”.
Lee: Yeah because there’s this Asian American telecommunications
organization called NAATA (and) they gave me finishing funds for
“Yellow”. In exchange they have educational distribution rights. They
have a really expensive catalogue of Asian American television
documentaries and feature works by Asian American filmmakers. And most
of the universities have a dialogue with NAATA for distribution. Nearly
once every two weeks, I get a call from some university and it’s from an
Asian American student organization. They’re like, “Oh we want to show
‘Yellow’. How can we get a rental print and set up a screening.” I’m
eager to really send it around, have it exposed to the widest possible
iW: The characters are very likable. You start to develop empathy for
their dilemma; to look beyond skin color.
Lee: Yeah, exactly. I think there’s an expectation on what the Asian
American film is and at this point, it’s still very narrow. Fortunately
over the next year there’s going to be a lot of films coming out all at
once about Asian Americans. That’s really a challenge when people have
certain expectations; when they hear it’s a feature film from an Asian
American perspective. They have expectations on what it might be about
and I think, when some people see “Yellow”, they’re kinda shocked
because it’s not really an immigrant story.
One thing that’s really been lacking in our society is that, we haven’t
had a visible representation of Asian Americans within the context of
American youth culture. So, I really wanna show how Asians are
definitely part of that diverse world.
iW: Which characters were the hardest to cast?
Lee: The adults — the older characters. Because in that age range I
found experienced actors. And doing a low budget film like ours is
pretty much something they were unfamiliar with and already have gone
beyond that, in terms of their careers. I was really lucky that they
decided to do it. If I didn’t get some of these actors, I literally did
not know who I could possibly cast.
Originally, I wrote “Yellow” from a Korean American perspective. But
when it came down to casting (the teenagers), I noticed that there were
some actors who weren’t Korean. You need the characters that (are able)
to project the persona. When it came down to it, I was more interested
in that. It was pretty easy for me to make adjustments to the characters
and open it up more in terms of representation.
iW: The film presented a lot of memorable characters — the two who
stood out were Grace (Angie Suh) and Yo-Yo (Jason Tobin).
Lee: Definitely Grace, Yo-Yo, and Alex (Burt Bulos). The whole cast is
very talented, very strong. I think there’s been a lot of progress in
terms of color blind casting in everything. They’ ve had a hard time. We
saw so many young actors, and a lot of them typically go in for waiters
or hookers or something. So it was really an opportunity for them to
play a character that best suited their strength. Characters they can
directly identify with.
[For more information on where and when “Yellow” will be screening,
contact Chris Lee at 213.969.4919.]
(Mar 13, 1998) Triple Fast Action, Life After “Out of the Loop”
(Feb 26, 1998) Clear Music Sets the Record Straight
(Feb 09, 1998) Shooting Music, Part IV: From the Producer’s P.O.V. —
(Feb 03, 1998) Shooting Music, Part III: Gus Gus’s Groove Electronic
(Jan 05, 1998) Shooting Music, Part I: Good Machine Makes Music and FilmMix