Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 10.6

Akemi Look stars in "Woman in Fragments"
Akemi Look stars in "Woman in Fragments"

Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 10.6

A Closer Look

Every year at CAAMFest, I see some incredible storytelling and acting talent in the shorts programs. This year was no different. Flipside shorts had many great tales, and is playing again this Thursday night. Don’t miss it! Akiko Izumitani’s The Other Side caught my eye, as she brought a sympathetic eye to the “bad guy” perspective with incredible action and thought-provoking writing. Justin Tan’s Give it Up was an achingly powerful story about what goes on behind the scenes in a standup comic’s life. Talk about humor as a coping mechanism! Wow. Quan Zhao’s Woman in Fragments starring Akemi Look is a wonderful narrative about a young dancer who must weigh her mother’s needs against her own desires. The lovely and talented Look was kind enough to answer some questions by email.

Akemi, I loved your work in Woman in Fragments. Can you tell me how you got involved and the process for completing the short? Do you know where the inspiration for the story came from?
Thank you! I saw the breakdown on a casting website and submitted myself. Essentially, they needed a strong dramatic actress with a contemporary/modern dance background (which is quite specific)!! I got the script the night before the audition, and immediately when I read it, I couldn’t stop crying. It hit such a nerve of truth from my own life that I knew I had to do it. I only got a few hours of sleep that night because I couldn’t stop reading the script, and the next morning I called my mother and grandmother and thanked them for everything they’ve done (which I had never done before)—everything they sacrificed to help provide for better opportunities in my life. It opened my eyes. It was an incredibly cathartic and healing phone call, and I hadn’t even auditioned yet!

At the audition, I knew that I couldn’t make the call back, so I offered to stay and do my dance audition for them at the end. I was the first actress there and the last to leave, I wanted the part so badly. There was no music, so I danced in complete silence and improvised everything. Emotionally, there was a lot going on inside me, so I let that speak through my movements. It was also the first time that I danced like that in 6 years. I had a scholarship to Alvin Ailey in NYC but dropped out because of an ankle injury that ended my short lived dance career. It was like expressing myself through my first language again.

We shot on film—actual 35mm film!! On some of the last rolls of Fujifilm ever in production. Our Director of Photography (Mike Solidum), Elizabeth Sung (Mrs. Wong) and I rehearsed the crap out of each scene because we had very few takes since we were shooting on film. It was like walking a tightrope. Prior to the shoot, I spent 3 weeks learning the movements for the dance scenes and working with our incredibly talented choreographer, Genevieve Carson. I’m a huge fan of her work. Finally, working with Elizabeth Sung (Joy Luck Club, Memoirs of a Geisha) was the biggest blessing I could have asked for. She is such a generous actress in so many ways and she really took me under her wing. She still is like my second mother, and this film could not have happened without her, she brings so much depth to the screen.

I believe Quan (writer and director), had a friend in school who was a dancer, so he was inspired by that. We also spoke at length about the sacrifices his parents made for him to study film abroad, both in the US and in Australia.

There are several docs in this festival involving sports and even the Olympics. You are an Olympian yourself! That’s pretty amazing. Tell me about that, and how you got from there to film.
Hah! Everyone thinks I am an Olympian, but actually, I am not! I won the Junior Olympics when I was 13, but it’s not the real Olympics. The short version of the story goes like this: I was on the USA National Team for Rhythmic Gymnastics, representing the United States in international competitions around the world. I was asked to join the USA Group Team (5 gymnasts, synchronized) and I competed at the 2002 World Championships (with a broken rib, might I add). We were slated to compete in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, which was my ONE dream since childhood. Incredibly long story short, the team fell apart due to politics and the USA did not send a group team to the Olympics that year. I was living and training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY, and I had to move back home to Michigan with my broken, failed dream. It was absolutely devastating. I fell into a deep depression, and everyone at my high school knew that I had failed. I was suicidal and lost and being a star gymnast was the only identity I had up until that moment.

One day my mother put me into a dance class just to get me out of bed in the morning, and something just clicked. It was euphoric, I could channel everything I was feeling and express it through art. So I became a dancer, and moved to NYC to train at Alvin Ailey. When I blew out my ankle, I took my first acting class and learned for the first time that I had VOICE. In gymnastics and dance, everything is in silence. There is no talking, everything is expressed with the body. Acting opened up my world to language, poetry, and plays. After years of literal silence, I found my voice and I found acting. It saved me from a lot of self-destruction.

I wrote about vulnerability in MOSF 10.4. Vulnerability is a major theme in the film. Your dance instructor praises your strength, but instructs you to be more vulnerable. First, I’m not even sure I know what that means in dance. Also, while I think vulnerability is the stamp of humility and equality for us all, it’s practically un-American. What did you tap into to understand your character?
It’s funny you mention that specifically in regards to dance because one of the biggest tasks for me was to show that arc in Anne’s journey through her dancing. Quan said to me, “the audience has to see the difference in the way she dances in the beginning to the way she dances at the end.” I had to interpret what that meant as a dancer. Do I hit this movement harder? Is there now more softness and lightness in that same movement? Strength vs. Vulnerability became a major theme for both Anne and Mrs. Wong. In our 20’s, we think our parents are strong and healthy until something happens that wakes us up to their mortality. Elizabeth and I also talked a lot about the cultural differences between Anne being a first-generation Chinese-American and Mrs. Wong being an immigrant, opening a dry cleaning business, and the struggles of being a single mother. That whole notion of saving face, of being strong in the face of difficulties.

Yes, the images of strength and power are very American in terms of global politics, however, we are vulnerable. Look at what happened with 9/11. Every single human being on this planet has their strengths, and every single human being has their vulnerabilities. It’s important for me know both of these things when playing a character, even if one or the other is not shown. It’s what makes us human. And often times, what is seen as a great strength or power in a character could stem from a huge vulnerability.

Please tell us about your current and future projects.
I am VERY excited about a couple things that are coming out soon! First, a short film called Love, Work and Other Demons. I play Joanna: a kick-ass, albeit lonely, Taoist demon hunter who finds love in a hopeless place—her dad’s Chinese restaurant. Joanna’s father, played by George Cheung (Rambo, Starsky & Hutch, Rush Hour) comes from a long tradition of male Taoist exorcists. And as one of the only girls in her line of work, she kicks serious demon ass. It’s wildly imaginative and inspired by fantasy, action movies and anime. Written and directed by Gorby Shih, our goal is to turn it into a series!

Here’s a teaser for the film:

I also just wrapped my first feature film! It’s called The Unbidden, written by Narhee Ahn and directed by Quentin Lee. It’s a horror/thriller and we have an incredible Asian female cast that includes Tamlyn Tomita, Amy Hill, Elizabeth Sung, Julia Nickson, Michelle Krusiec, Karin Anna Cheung and Kim-Rose Wolter.

Have you ever been to CAAMFest before?
Woman in Fragments is my first film in CAAMFest! I can’t wait to attend, hopefully next year so I can meet everyone! I am always looking for talented writers and directors to collaborate with by seeing their work in festivals. I keep an ongoing list of future collaborators.

I read that you grew up outside of Detroit—so did I! Over the years, I’ve met many Asian American Michiganders in film, including Jacqueline Kim and Joyce Wu (She Lights Up Well). We should have a panel, or a support group at CAAMFest sometime! What has the transition to L.A. been like?
I would be so down for that! There were very few Asians in my town growing up, so I suffered from Tokenism. I just made that up, but it’s when you’re always the token Asian person, and a bit ashamed that you aren’t white enough or black enough to fit in. I had never felt the support of an Asian American community before coming to Los Angeles, and I am so happy to be part of it. It’s time for us, culturally, to have a voice and to demand for our voices to be heard and our stories to be told!! (Shout out to Eddie Huang)!

This year’s theme is Destination: CAAMFest. What are your quirkiest travel essentials?
I’m really into crystals. I have a huge collection, and I cleanse them, meditate with them and charge them during the full moon. If that’s not quirky, then I don’t know what is! I like to have my power crystals with me when I travel. One is a necklace with quartz, pyrite and obsidian and it gives me positive energy! Another is a small orange aragonite crystal from poet Beau Sia. It’s travel size and helps with anxiety.

Thanks, and hope to see you at a future CAAMFest!

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.