During her childhood in St. Louis, Debbie Lum lived behind one of the largest single screen movie theaters in town. She saw the blockbusters like "Star Wars" and "E.T.," but especially remembers the disappointment she felt after seeing "Sixteen Candles" with its foreign exchange student character Long Duk Dong. Lum has since set out to make films that better represent Chinese culture. She's bringing her documentary "Seeking Asian Female" to the South by Southwest Film Festival.
What It's About: Two strangers, an aging American man obsessed with Asian women and a young woman from China half his age, meet online and become engaged. This intimate and quirky personal documentary is told from the director's POV as a Chinese American woman who always wanted to know why so many Western men are obsessed with Asian women. As Lum films the two attempting to build a marriage from scratch in California, she become their translator and unwitting marriage counselor — all the while trying to determine could it possibly be for love?
Says director Debbie Lum: "This is a real life story about two people with questionable motives who are thrown into a crazy situation — but above all, I really wanted to show both the humor and the human side of the story. 'Yellow fever' (Western male obsession for Asian women) is a really polarizing issue in the Asian American community, and probably pisses off a lot of women as well. I really tried to get beyond black and white polemics and dig into the layered complexities of the issue through a very personal story.
"My family has been in America for four generations but my roots are Chinese. And I realized that the only stories that vaguely represented where I came from were gross stereotypes at best, and demeaning at worst, but generally non-existent. You don't have to be Asian American to feel a disconnect between what you see in the movies and your own real life. There are so many untold stories out there. Those are the stories that really interest me, the ones I really want to tell.
"Romance and relationships are unpredictable. Chasing the story took over five years. I had to wait for my main character to find a Chinese woman who wanted to marry him. There were so many late night calls to me after she arrived, as I went from documentary filmmaker to translator to marriage counselor. I didn't realize I had become a character in my own film until halfway through shooting it. My editor will tell you how much work that created in the editing room.
"I'd like audiences to be surprised by the way in which two seemingly strange characters are so relatable. I'd like them to see a different side of the stereotypical international bride story, and have a new image of what it means to be a Chinese woman and a Chinese immigrant in America. I'd really like people to ponder how powerful and troubling stereotypes and expectations are in romance and relationships, and think twice before making judgments about others based a few details they know.
About her inspirations: "'a.k.a. Don Bonus by Spencer Nakasako' – the first documentary I ever edited, was shot entirely POV by a 17-year-old Cambodian immigrant kid with virtually no filmmaking experience. Not 'beautiful' it is still incredibly vivid, intimate and powerful because the subject/cinematographer could only be true to his life. Other recent docs I love with similarly obsessed main characters — 'Marwencol' and 'Anvil.' On the other side of the spectrum, I often thought of fiction films about awkward, unconventional love stories as I was creating this. Movies like 'Annie Hall' and 'Punch Drunk Love.'
"I'd love for my film to find a great audience at SXSW. I'm excited to see all the great films that will be in the festival. Looking forward to meeting all the interesting folks who will be convening in Austin for the SXSW.
"We just finished this film — literally days before this goes to press. First off, I plan to take a trip to Hawaii and sleep, and give my family more attention. If I muster the courage to make another film again, I plan to explore a few ideas for fictional films – an ensemble black comedy about love and death and a period piece set in the 1950's about two Chinese American college students who fall in love, then try to elope before their parents can prevent them from getting married (loosely based around my parents story.) I'm always exploring documentary ideas but it's too early to talk about them. Check back later!"
Indiewire invited SXSW Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.
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