I don’t know about you, but my amygdalae have been going off like pop rocks since 2016. It hadn’t been an exactly maglev smooth ride before that, either. We’ve all had to recalibrate our identities, intentions and directions in some way. Filmmaker Kana Hatakeyama, director of the outstanding short OKAASAN (MOM), said that after 11-9, she knew she had to double down on her vision, and bring her script to the screen. I’m sure many of the other filmmakers and artists at CAAMFest37 would agree.
OKAASAN is a grounded view of relationship between mother and daughter (played with a crusty authenticity that betrays itself to warmth in the cracks and crevices by Kana and her real-life mother, Kako Hatekayama, from Kana’s script). Kana’s character is tense and prickly throughout with avoidance and latent conflicts – very 20-something – yet deeper gravitations pull her to her mother, and her mother to her, in silent but revealing embrace. Similarly, Hao Wu’s ALL IN MY FAMILY (now streaming on Netflix) documents his family, particularly his mother’s, obstreperous conflict with his gay identity and now fatherhood; yet again, their lives twine together with more affection than disapproval. (See my interview with Wu in MOSF 14.8.) SHARE (co-winner of the InspirASIAN Student Filmmaker Award, directed by Barna Szász and Ellie Wen, the latter the co-writer of WHITE FROG, CAAMFest 2012) brings us 18 year old Tim Chau’s traumatic coming out story, mediated by apps, whose code, unfortunately, seems so safe compared to that of humans. “I thought you’d never tell me!” says his cousin, before she reveals his dad knew, and said he would love him anyway. “I was always scared he wouldn’t love me anymore!” he says through sobs. All those years of homophobia, fear and anguish seem to be on the brink of falling away as we watch him type a hesitant text message to his father.
Loni Ding Award Winner in Social Issue Documentary IN THIS FAMILY (dir. Drama Del Rosario) might be a sequel of sorts, featuring Marcus Del Rosario’s long arc to parental acceptance of his gay identity as well. We hear the hateful comments directed at him and gay people in youth, but then witness his parents’ affection and support after he comes out and they come around. “This entire thing of me coming out, it wasn’t just me. Our entire family went through that. And I am proud of myself, but I think I am prouder of my parents, because – whew! omigod! I’m not gonna cry – as a child, to see your parents grow…is just an amazing thing.” The LGBTQ+ experience, particularly as seen here in Asian and Asian American families, offers a template of possibility, the possibility of change, growth, understanding, forgiveness and healing, despite a seemingly impassable wall of ignorance and even hatred, put up not just by families, but by an entire culture. And these stories happen in real life, in real time, not just in narratives created by an omnipotent director. These are hopeful films for our times, sending us the message that, well, love will, or can, keep us together, and even take us to a place we could scarce imagine before, if we let it. If we let ourselves. “Heart” beats “Wall” and all other hands played, in our real-life Rochambeau. I know, these tales aren’t the full 360 of our experience, but they are more than silver lining on dark clouds. They are sunlight.
Did I mention that Taiwan just became the first Asian nation to legalize gay marriage? Yes, folks, we have a sun, as bright as the one on Taiwan’s flag, and as bright as the likes and loves on director and Taiwan resident Leo Chiang’s Facebook proposal to his partner. (His partner accepted, in the comment thread! Congrats!)
HAPPY CLEANERS was, for similar reasons, this year’s most perfect viewing experience for me (Update: HAPPY CLEANERS won the Narrative Audience Award for CAAMFest37). Writers Kat Kim, Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee gathered around a table and talked about their own lives and the lives and struggles of their parents, as reflective of Korean Americans in Flushing, Queens. Peter Lee called the process “therapy for all of us, because we had to go back to trauma that we had bottled up. We just got together and started talking about memories of moments we’ve had with our families.”
HAPPY CLEANERS is ripped from these hippocampal headlines of the filmmakers’ own lives, and from these headlines, they create a heart-wrenchingly real mise en scène that takes us to the meaning, misery and understated, quiet triumph of a family of immigrants and the children of immigrants, whose members, at the end of the day, only really have each other, for better and worse.Every moment felt real and unembellished, thus making the film’s messages all the more powerful. The days marked might seem quotidian, yet they are Shakespearean in their emotional range, much like our own lives, and therefore, much like the greatest Ozu films I’ve seen. Directors Julian Kim and Peter Lee filmed in Kat Kim’s neighborhood in Flushing, New York, where she grew up and still lives, and used Julian’s uncle’s dry-cleaning shop. Hyang-Wa Lim was their choice for the family’s mother. She was a stage star in Korea in her 20s, but she was forced to abandon her acting career when she married into a conservative family. HAPPY CLEANERS marks her screen comeback, 30+ years later, and she utterly embodies her role as matriarch and Queen of Critiques, laying into her son Danny (Yun Jeong) for dropping out of school in pursuit of hazy food-truck dreams, her daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung) for her long-term relationship with a down-on-his-luck boyfriend (Donald Chang), and her husband (Charles Ryu) for being, basically, the inaugural cause of her ongoing suffering. Jaehee Wilder provides a balancing note with her grandmotherly love and calm acceptance. Mother-in-laws are not always fearsome. Ryu, a Methodist minister who took acting classes to improve his sermons, fell into his first acting gig in the short film TAXI. Here, he makes deep pain palpable in utter silence, as he processes his screen wife’s denouncing him and her choice to marry him, in warning to Hyunny to make a better selection. Ryu also channels pain as his son berates him for not making more of himself. Ryu said in the Q and A that he said similar words to his own father at that age; recollecting that moment sounds almost shattering; but like a true method actor, he channeled that moment into preparing for his scenes, doubling over from the gut-punch of that trauma. There must be a special school of Korean American method acting – is it called ‘life’? All these exceptional actors made me believe their onscreen predicament, conflict, and striving for something better. And together, they create something more than any of their individual stories alone. That’s family as I like it.
There wasn’t a contrived or forced moment in HAPPY CLEANERS – newbie narrative screenwriters take note. The cast and crew successfully portrayed psychological, cultural and family dynamics without being didactic, on-the-nose or melodramatic. I lost myself in their creation. I could see the immigrant’s tenuous, uphill climb to establish a foothold; a shattering of the model-minority myth; the high expressed emotion typical of many Korean and Asian families; the strains of Confucian values, struggling between authoritarianism, duty and benevolence; a self-sacrificing but conflicted Asian American daughter in Hyunny; a realistically ambivalent relationship to Christianity; and intergenerational shame, expressed in blame and anger by the son; and the ultimate grace of the family bond, expressed around the dinner table. Especially wonderful were the scene-stealing meals, breaking up the action and bringing family members together, reminiscent of EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN. The meals were a character in themselves. Lee said, to many approving snaps in the audience, “we say ‘I love you’ through food, and we wanted to show that.” Indeed, their film redefines “happy,” reminding me of matriarch Eleanor’s critique of America’s cultural definition in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Happiness becomes a measured success at dealing with adversity and difficult emotions, not their complete abolition or a headlong flight into pleasure or individualistic fulfillment. HAPPY CLEANERS is a finely observed family drama that deserves a bigger audience, in America, Korea and around the world.
M FOR MALAYSIA took conflict to national proportions. I knew next-to-nothing about Malaysian history and politics – typical of most Americans yet shameful considering Malaysia is a diverse country of over 31 million. Ineza Rousille was called in to film her grandfather, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, as he led his party in a run for Prime Minister. She and co-director Dian Lee deftly summarize key episodes in modern Malaysian politics, including Mahathir’s fraught 22-year term as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, then half of Malaysia’s history as an independent republic. Mahathir has been described as ‘a ruthless leader – feared, admired, hated, loved.’ Yet we see him as a human being: dressing, hugging his wife (who is said to have softened him over the years), genially joking with Ineza. He is an affable and gentle patriarch here. His campaign speeches are filled with uplift, concern for the common man, and a promise to fight corruption. All this in stark contrast with the standing PM Najib Razak, who takes clear inspiration from Donald Trump in his rhetoric to “Make Malaysia Great Again!” Najib is currently under investigation for embezzling almost a billion dollars and other crimes, and his cronies are seen bribing constituents for their votes. Ineza was pressed into service by her mother less than two weeks before the election. She admits, but doesn’t explore, that she’s had political conflicts with her grandfather. In the Q and A, she said there are “generational differences.” I imagine Mahathir’s history of authoritarian rule and jailing his rivals, as well as his past support of homophobic smears and cultural discrimination, might be part of the generational gap. Yet his surprise victory in May, 2018 was a watershed in Southeast Asian and Malaysian politics, supporting the rule of law and easing fears of electoral corruption. Mahathir has bolstered these by placing the Electoral Commission under the legislature instead of the PM’s office. M FOR MALAYSIA gave me a big taste of the struggles and joys of the Malaysian people. I couldn’t remember being as angry in a documentary before, as I watched enormous crowds of protestors being tear gassed and beaten in Kuala Lumpur – until I remembered the footage of Ferguson. Indeed, Malaysia may offer us a template and warning for our own politics. Like the Malaysian people, we should not be throwing rose petals on the path to dictatorship, the logical outcome of unchecked executive power – which has been the official position of presidential legal counsel from to Nixon to Reagan to Trump.
Family conflict seasons our reality, but it is also perhaps a hopeful metaphor for nations and indeed our whole Earth. I risk cloying sentiment when I emphasize that we are indeed one human family, and even a family of all living creatures, but it is undeniably true. I can only hope that our deeper common bonds and values of love and affection – based on understanding and valuing one another – will overcome the stain of antagonism and tribalism that has marred our turbulent voyage in time. I’m happy to be a passenger on this journey on the boat built by CAAM. We don’t know how our family story will end, but we keep writing and envisioning, sending our messages into the collective consciousness, pressing for a resonance that includes us.
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.