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DOC NYC Women Directors: Ursula Liang – ‘9-Man’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Ursula Liang - '9-Man'

Ursula Liang is a journalist who has worked in a wide range of media, including posts at ESPN The Magazine, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The New York Times Op-Docs, and StirTV. She is the co-producer of Tough Love (also at DOC NYC). (Press materials)

9-Man, her debut as a director, will play at DOC NYC on November 15. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing. 

UL: 9-Man is a story about streetball battles in the heart of Chinatown, featuring a chaotic, Chinese-only game played in parking lots and alleys since 1938. Pivoting between oil-spotted asphalt and jellyfish-filled banquets, the film captures the spirit of 9-Man and Asian-American life as players gun for a championship and fight to preserve a faded tradition in a society rife with change.  

W&H: What drew you to this story?

UL: The history of the sport is fascinating and says a lot about the experience of Chinese men in this country. The game started at a time when the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act were still palpable. Men were living in all-male bachelor societies facing hostility every day, and 9-Man was their physical and emotional escape. My brother started playing 9-Man in the 1990s, and when I saw how much the community meant to him decades later, it became clear that vestiges of that bachelor-filled Chinatown were present for Asian-Americans today. I wanted to explore that.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
UL: I’m a first-time director, so many things proved challenging. Production in the chaotic, blazing 9-Man environment was incredibly tough, but doing it on a shoestring budget was even more challenging. I racked up a lot of miles on the Chinatown bus and lugged a lot of gear on foot and through subway. There was never a time when fundraising picked up enough to go the champagne route.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
UL: I hope people leave the movie thinking that they have seen a real and diverse portrait of Asian-American men–guys with Boston accents, muscles, height, humor, anger, and athletic ability — alongside others that fit the more traditional characteristics of Asian men in the media. I also hope people explore the idea of community and how belonging and exclusion shape our experiences. Ultimately, I hope the film will be seen as both a love letter to 9-Man and Chinatown and a call to consider the complicated experiences of Asian Americans and to question the hypocrisies within our own communities.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

UL: Hire other women. All the major roles in my film were held by women, and I really enjoyed working with them. We need to make a point of seeking one another out in order to correct the gender imbalance in this industry.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

UL: I don’t know why people think this is a story for Asian-Americans. Any story well-told should have universal themes that all audiences can relate to. I think this film about a very specific subculture has a lot of resonance outside of it. 

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

UL: This film was funded by generous Kickstarter donations, a post-production grant from the Center For Asian American Media, in-kind donations, and some well-paid television work that I was able to stretch and contribute to the project. 

W&H: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

UL: Too many great female-directed docs to choose from! I really love Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Pecks’ Shut Up and Sing. I’m a sucker for an accessible story with heart. It was a potent combination of bravery and song that just got me. I’m inspired by women who stand up for what they believe in, and I’m particularly impressed by celebrities who do, because I’ve worked with so many who use fame as an excuse not to act. 

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