When I first went on staff at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, then-marketing director Dan Matthews had me blogging about my festival travels as well as short essays on filmmakers. For one Asian Pacific American Heritage Month spotlight, I wrote on the one-and-only Curtis Choy. It originally appeared on the old SDAFF blogspot.
Directors and actors get all the credit in Asian American cinema. We rarely think about the talent it takes to shoot, assemble, promote, and disseminate films. And given how small the Asian American film world is, it’s even more important to consider all of the pieces in this guerrilla workshop. There should be no hierarchies, only partners in crime trying to carve out a piece of the pie for the community.
There is one filmmaker who has been there from the very beginning, and remains active to this day. To call him an unsung hero is not exactly correct: everyone in the Asian American film world acknowledges his skill and stature. He worked on Wayne Wang’s seminal Chan is Missing (1982), Arthur Dong’s award-winning Forbidden City U.S.A. (1989), Wang’s breakthrough The Joy Luck Club (1993), Chris Chan Lee’s beloved Yellow (1998), Tony Bui’s international hit Three Seasons (1999), Gene Cajayon’s immortal The Debut (2000), and of course Justin Lin’s game-changing Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). He’s Curtis Choy, sound recordist and sound mixer. And he’s got the most impressive resume in all of Asian American cinema. He’s our Edith Head.
Considering Curtis Choy as an Asian American filmmaker also invites us to think about the question of Asian American aesthetics altogether. Why do filmmakers keep going to Choy? And why are so many of the community’s best films recorded and mixed by him? Is it simply that he is the most respected game in town, or is his art of sound somehow conducive to something we might call an “Asian American aesthetic?” Has he tapped into a soundscape the community can hear itself in and appreciate? These are tough enough questions when we deal with more graspable elements like narrative, acting, or costume. But sound? How do we analyze that? How can our ears hear our community?
I’m no expert at sound design so I can’t say. I couldn’t close my eyes during a movie and tell you if it is a Choy soundtrack. But I can say this: looking at Choy’s filmography, we can definitely glean a few things about the sonic world he’s so good at creating. Namely that Choy is a film artist that’s always had his ear to the streets. Chan is Missing is celebrated for its black and white aesthetic and free-flowing storytelling. But it’s also been celebrated for its sense of improvisation, and so much of that comes from the sound. The sound of the Chinatown traffic, shops, and homes. The dialects, as spoken by actual people. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Choy is also great at documentary sound; he recorded Terry Zwigoff’s modern classic Crumb (1994).
Choy’s films also know how we listen to music and how music drives young peoples’ spirits. Think of the memorable slow-motion, John Woo-esque restaurant scene in Yellow. The music makes it. Or the party atmosphere of The Debut: Dante Basco and Joy Bisco flirted and danced to sounds Choy assembled. And in this year’s documentary-esque Surrogate Valentine (Dave Boyle), reality and romantic fantasy converge in the sounds of the road, as well as in Goh Nakamura’s “sad sack” music.
To top it off, Curtis Choy is a terrific director in his own right. His documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel (1976) is as seminal as any of the films he’s mixed. That it’s a technical marvel (especially given that it’s 35 years old) is a no-brainer; that it’s politically and emotionally impassioned is what makes it a masterpiece. As director, Choy also confronted fellow rabble-rouser Frank Chin with the 2005 documentary What’s Wrong with Frank Chin?, followed Lt. Ehren Watada in the 2007 Watada, Register, and explored the work of poet Al Robles in Manilatown is in the Heart (2008). In his choice of subjects and his scrappy approach to capturing their worlds, Choy is clearly an old-school Asian American filmmaker. But don’t be deceived. His weirdly awesome website Chonk Moonhunter may be embarrassingly web 1.0, but there’s a self-consciousness there that shows he’s hip to what it means to be an old soul. It shouldn’t be surprising that Choy did the sound on the retro-cool Kung Phooey! (2003) and Finishing the Game (2007).
Any period, any genre, any sensibility. Curtis Choy has made it sonically click with the Asian American experience.