Cinema Little Saigon: A Retrospective

In 2015, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, I curated a retrospective of films directed by Vietnamese Americans. The hope was to steer commemorations away from narratives of American military heroism and toward the experiences of those who experienced, critiqued, and remembered the event and its after-effects as refugees in the United States. The package, entitled Cinema Little Saigon, included feature films, experimental work, documentaries, and short films. After premiering at the SDAFF Spring Showcase in April 2015, the retrospective traveled to the Houston APA Film Festival (June 2015) and the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (Nov. 2015). To supplement and enhance the Cinema Little Saigon film series, I also compiled a list of feature films directed by Vietnamese Americans, as well as a bibliography of suggested readings about Vietnamese American cinema.

The following is the introductory essay for the series.

For the refugee, anniversaries are just numbers.

For governments – whether of the southern Republic of Vietnam which lost, the northern Socialist Republic of Vietnam which took control, or the United States which retreated – the Fall of Saigon was a pivotal day and this year’s 40th anniversary a moment of reflection, celebration, or commemoration. There will be tributes to heroes, living and fallen, and flashbacks to the critical events of April 30, 1975.

But the refugee knows that there were pivotal moments that preceded that day, and the refugee knows that turmoil did not end with the capture of Saigon. Wars within families continued to rage even when the bombing ended – some in prison camps, some on U.S. military bases, some in the Little Saigons all over the world. For the refugee, 40 years is not as significant as time measured in months held in detention centers, weeks stranded on boats, hours spent in English classes, or those critical seconds that replay over and over in the mind – seconds that made the difference of family unity or survival itself. For the refugee, the 40th anniversary is but one of many anniversaries that dot a life thrust onto multiple continents: birthdays that mark endurance, graduations that certify achievement, and moments of silence that bear witness to the private grief of the living.

This year, flags will be hoisted as they have been on every anniversary. The victors will celebrate, the anti-communists will mourn, and the U.S. will continue to remember their humanitarian efforts in “saving” refugees. But these events must also remind us of the narratives that go silent, namely those of refugees who are now Vietnamese Americans, participants in civic culture and neighbors in areas like San Diego’s City Heights. Their narratives draw attention to the lived and ongoing experience of displacement, narratives that represent Vietnamese Americans as lively, desiring, and imaginative, and not simply as collateral damage or as confirmations of the American dream.

As is expected whenever trauma is so near, much of this silence has been self-imposed. Refugees often want to move on and not dwell on a tortured past. So it has been the 1.5 and 2nd generation Vietnamese Americans who have started interrogating family silence or America’s version of events. This generation includes documentarians like Doan Hoang, who turned her camera on her parents, asking questions about unspoken extended family. Her resulting documentary OH, SAIGON is a powerful first-person account of her U.S. family and its relationship to home.

This generation also includes director Ham Tran, who, after completing a number of acclaimed short films at UCLA, brought together Vietnamese American artists, financiers, and community members who wanted their story finally told on screen. The resulting feature JOURNEY FROM THE FALL is an epic patched together from dozens of family stories – the sort of stories usually only half-told and half-remembered, now made permanent on celluloid for the entire community.

That imperative to tell one’s story, to gain command of film style, and to produce films that bring people together has made Vietnamese filmmakers some of the most visible and accomplished of all Asian American storytellers. Their films have played around the world, collecting film festival prizes and impressing audiences from Sundance to Berlin. Many of these filmmakers, especially those hailing from Orange County, have banded together as regular collaborators. They work on each other’s films, they help get the word out, and through the support of estimable organizations like the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA), they have created a network to nurture new voices and further conversations about film and community.

So this year, Pacific Arts Movement highlights the so-called “Viet Wave” with “Cinema Little Saigon,” a film retrospective that celebrates the cinematic achievements of Vietnamese American filmmakers, in particular those whose films complicate the usual narrative of refugee rescue and the great success of a model minority. In film after film, history refuses to close its doors. In CATFISH AND BLACK BEAN SAUCE, JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, and OH, SAIGON, reunion only unearths ripples in ingrained notions of family and home. The U.S. is not represented as merely a refuge, but also a space of further obstacles, rejection, and alienation. Culture in the diasporic sense is revealed in all of its mythic strangeness, as in Nguyen Tan Hoang’s COVER GIRL. Nearly all of the films consider the Vietnamese American experience cross-racially; for instance, Adele Pham’s #NAILEDIT explores the phenomenon of Vietnamese nail salons as they exploded with the help of African American partners and clientele.

Despite these common thematic threads, what makes the Vietnamese American film scene such a dynamic one is how diverse and adaptable its voices are. These films refract memory and experience through a number of creative modes and genres: cross-cultural comedy, historical epic, intimate drama, first-person documentary, experimental video. Spatially, they follow footsteps unencumbered by circumstance – across continents, from private into public spheres, from ethnic enclaves into the mainstream and back again. This is well-exemplified thematically in many of the independent films, but also on an industrial level with “Viet Kieu films,” productions helmed by Vietnamese Americans but produced in and for Vietnam. The Viet Kieu films represent a new cosmopolitanism enabled by the normalization of US-Vietnamese relations in the 1990s and the coming-of-age of a generation once-removed from the thorny politics of war. Films like the Dostoevsky adaptation GENTLE, directed by Le-Van Kiet and starring Dustin Nguyen, boldly imagine haunting, death, and memory in Vietnam through a diasporic lens and via a parable of world literature.

Inspired by the pioneering new scholarship of Yen Le Espiritu and the continued cultural work of VAALA, this retrospective draws attention not only to the classics of Vietnamese American cinema, but to the cities and neighborhoods that have inspired these works, places like City Heights in San Diego, where Vietnamese Americans now share spaces with newer refugees from Africa to the Middle East. Hence “Cinema Little Saigon”: like “Chinatown” as much a frame of mind as it is a geographic designation, as much a well of cinematic creativity and aspiration as it is a megaplex or community theater. Whatever the anniversary, this cinema measures its vitality through the communities it’s bridged, the audiences it’s awakened, and the artists it continues to inspire.

A letter to the San Diego Opera regarding yellowface in their production of “Nixon in China”

In 2014, the San Diego Opera reached out to us at Pacific Arts Movement about helping them promote their production of “Nixon in China.” We had a meeting with them during which they explained to us that Mao would be played by a white actor. With that, we declined. To their credit, the opera invited us to write a letter to their staff and board about why we could not support yellowface. Honestly, I groaned at the whole thing and wondered why we had to waste mental energy on this age-old debate. But I wrote the letter, and years later I’m pleased that it became an important document for our organization internally.

At Pac Arts, we had originally toyed with the idea of publishing this letter publicly, but decided not to. Well, in case it’s useful to anybody today, here it is.

To the staff and board of the San Diego Opera,

First off, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to express our thoughts and concerns about the San Diego Opera’s upcoming presentation of Nixon in China. It tells us that the Opera is open to dialogue about issues important to the Asian American community, as well as to diversity in the San Diego region more generally.

Much of what I have to say is probably very familiar to the Opera, as it touches upon some of the central debates of American theater of the past few decades. That debate first came to a head in the late 1980s with the casting of Miss Saigon. Eyes shaped slanted by prosthetics, skin yellowed by bronzing lotion: Broadway saw the collision of yellow peril visual culture with the sordid history of blackface. More recently, we have seen similar controversies over the Nightingale at the La Jolla Playhouse, in which yellowface was defended on the grounds of artistic license, and yet the power dynamics of “color blindness” were clear: whites could play Asians but not the other way around. This year, a performance of The Mikado in Seattle sparked debate over whether yellowface could be defended on the grounds of historical preservation.

The very recourse to “historical accuracy” or “color blindness” indicates that by now, the theater community knows that yellowface is a stain in American theater that needs a new framework to think about acting, makeup, casting, and adaptation.  The conversation surrounding Nightingale and The Mikado raised important points about how this new framework might look, and all parties, including Asian Americans, understand the importance of artistic license and cultural preservation.  However, tensions still arise because the playing ground continues to be uneven.  Why are white producers always the only ones evoking artistic license?  Why are the only histories being preserved the histories of white theater?  This new framework cannot simply be devised to protect the interests of white theater artists, their stories, and their traditions.  Non-white communities like Asian Americans can feel when their voices aren’t taken seriously, even when they are offered a seat at the table.

Whether on film, on TV, or in the theater, the history of Asian American performance in the United States has been one of erasure.  Superstar Anna May Wong was denied a role in Hollywood’s high-profile adaption of The Good Earth, and was ultimately driven to Europe and Asia to seek out work.  Budding actor Bruce Lee was passed over for the lead in television’s Kung Fu in favor of a white actor with eyes taped back.  And repeatedly, Asian American theater actors see the most high-profile roles – especially lead roles – go to white counterparts donning yellowface.  This history is as tiring as the controversy that’s trailed it over the decades.  It reminds Asian Americans of their larger erasure from American life: Japanese American incarceration not being taught in schools even today, the significant populations of Asian Americans under the poverty line kept in the shadows thanks to mainstream perceptions of Asians as the “model minority,” the so-called “bamboo ceiling” that continues to keep Asian Americans out of positions of corporate and civic leadership.  Put in this context, any evocation of “color blindness” is as laughable as any proclamation of America being a “post-racial” nation.  Asian Americans groan at the thought of color blindness because every day they are the object of a racialized gaze.

As an artistic director, I take artistic license seriously. It is the lifeforce of creativity and a bastion for freedom of speech. But so rarely is the spirit of artistic license used to push the limits of expression; instead it has become a refuge to hide behind and justify what is actually artistic regression. I’m excited about the possibility of cross-racial casting. The centrality of race in the conversation of American life and history means we should find ways to evoke race that are playful, incendiary, strange, or impassioned. But the conversations we’ve seen with Miss Saigon or The Nightingale don’t excite me. They make race less interesting, more status quo. They aren’t artistically adventurous and demean what it means to have artistic license.

The case of Nixon in China doesn’t get me that worked up, in part because the San Diego Opera hasn’t resorted to claiming artistic license and has, to us anyway, owned up to the fact that the final cast is a compromised one.  But given this long history of erasure and the continued suppression of Asian or Asian American voices – even when Asia is being presented, as is the case of Nixon in China – we are unable to extend our support of the production, nor are we in a position where we can in good faith encourage anybody to see it.  The history of western opera is full of orientalist discourse (Madama Butterfly, most famously) and it pains us to think that the only contemporary productions revolving Asians do little to change that.

Again, many thanks for hearing us out.  We support the Opera because we love opera as an art form with the potential to bring people together, enlighten and entertain, and thrust us into some of the most awe-inspiring music humanity has ever known.  So let’s keep this dialogue going so we can further understand what terms in which the greater San Diego community in fact wants to come together and be transformed.


Brian Hu

Roger and Me

This appreciation was written the afternoon after Roger Ebert passed away. To this date, it’s one of the most personal and autobiographical essays I’ve written. I was moved by how widely shared it was, and it remains one of the most viewed posts ever on the Pacific Arts Movement website, where it was first published.

Though it has been mere hours since we learned of the passing of Roger Ebert, there has already been an outpouring of surprise, grief, and appreciation of the great Chicago Sun-Times film critic. Among those going out of their way to blog, tweet, and share their favorite Ebert moments are those who recall how important Ebert has been to the history of Asian American cinema. His impassioned defense of Asian American voices at a screening of Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance in 2002 is legion – already immortalized in documentaries like BLT: Genesis and Hollywood Chinese, and today passed around on Twitter and Facebook as a document not only of Roger Ebert’s fierce wit, but also as a reminder to ourselves to continue to find the fire in our own voices.

During his career, he was known, and often criticized, for his thumbs and stars. I’m glad to see that today he’s remembered for his true contribution to film culture: his words. In print, on TV, and online, Ebert always knew how to make his words count. When he lost his voice to cancer in 2006, his words became even sharper and more articulate. And more cherished.

The shock of seeing Ebert’s face post-surgery, and the sorrow of finding that one of TV history’s best talking heads could talk no more, turned many of us back to YouTube to listen to Ebert’s most famous barbs with his late co-host Gene Siskel, or to his DVD commentaries, considered among the best in the format. We went online and discovered that Ebert also wrote 140 characters better than anyone else. We dug into the archives and found Ebert’s masterful gonzo interview with Lee Marvin in the back issues of Esquire. The man knew what words could do.

We of course already knew this, and today, many of us went online to tell stories about what Ebert’s words have always meant to us. Many of these stories are intensely personal – a memory of hearing one of his famous “Cinema Interruptus” lectures, of meeting him in person, of the review that helped launch a career. I can’t imagine this sort of gratitude showered upon any other movie critic – or any critic for that matter. It’s because Ebert was the rare populist who never talked down to the elites or to the common moviegoers. He wanted to elevate the reader, not because he was smarter, but because he wanted us all to love movies as much as he did. His opinions certainly were not always popular; he also alienated many with his unabashed liberal views. But he wrote with honesty, conviction, and generosity. Better than just about any critic, he trusted his instincts, never afraid to give a Hollywood franchise film his highest compliments and an Abbas Kiarostami film one star. But that honesty meant so much more when he found the words – before most critics had even spoken – to shed light on his elation over independent films like Prashant Bhargava’s Patang, Patrick Wang’s In the Family, and of course, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. His words mattered not only because Ebert was a wordsmith, but also because they were spoken so closely to his heart.



Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies debuted the same year I was born, so as long as I remember, he was always around. When I was in junior high, our family bought a new VCR, which was bundled in cellophane with Roger Ebert’s 1996 Video Companion, the latest edition of Ebert’s classic and recent reviews. I casually started reading reviews of films I’d seen, mostly Hollywood titles from the early 90s. Soon though, I was reading the reviews not for the films, but for Ebert’s voice, so the fact that I soon knew about Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, and Akira Kurosawa was purely a byproduct of my appreciation of Ebert’s opinionated prose.

Then, a weird thing happened. I had never been a very confident writer, and in those days before WordPress or even GeoCities, I didn’t do it very much outside of school. And yet, I started to write movie reviews. Not to develop an identity as a movie critic, but because, simply, I wanted to be Roger Ebert. In Microsoft Word, I would adjust the font size and column width to match that of the Video Companion exactly, and I would give myself his word counts as I wrote about As Good As it Gets, Armageddon, or whatever else I watched at our local mall as a 15-year-old without a driver’s license.

Somehow, I mustered the courage to go from these suburban illusions of grandeur to writing movie reviews for our high school newspaper. If an earlier generation produced Kaelites, I was an Ebert-ite from lede to kicker. I took a journalism class. Learning about libel, the fourth estate, and citizenship was purely a byproduct of my desire to be Roger Ebert. Another byproduct: I became more confident with my words. I became the entertainment editor of the school paper. I won national awards for high school film criticism. I wrote a college application essay about my love for Pulp Fiction.

I even got into a few colleges with that essay, in many ways inspired by Roger Ebert’s piece “Secrets of Pulp Fiction,” anthologized in that 1996 video companion. On campus, while others were storming rush week, I was knocking at the door of the college newspaper, looking to be the weekly movie reviewer. I got the gig and caught the press screening and junket bug. Every week, I’d churn out reviews of the latest films by everyone from Chris Rock to Claire Denis.

Roger Ebert was still a must-read, but so were J. Hoberman, A.O. Scott, and my favorite of all, Jonathan Rosenbaum. With college came a rejection of everything that came before. Ebert, like a childhood stuffed animal, was just so provincial. He never wrote about Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang. Did he even know who Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang was? The pages of the Village Voice and Film Comment sure did, and there I found erudite (i.e. New York) ways of talking film.

My interest in Asian cinema arose out of Rosenbaum’s glowing reviews of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke, directors who received nary a mention in the pages of theChicago Sun-Times. I also developed my own, admittedly Rosenbaumian, critical perspective, often against Ebert’s megaplex populism.

In August 2002, Roger Ebert wrote a negative review of Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times, a film I adored and also reviewed. He thought the tender comedy about grown men who trick a blind girl into becoming a masseuse was downright creepy. At the end of his review, Ebert wrote:

[If] I found it creepy beyond all reason, that is no doubt because I have been hopelessly corrupted by the decadent society I inhabit. Or … are there moviegoers in China who also find Happy Times odd in the extreme? I searched the Chinese Movie Database and the sites of the People’s Daily, the South China Morning Post and English-language papers from Shanghai and Beijing, without finding any mention of the film at all. The Web is worldwide and perhaps I will hear from a Chinese reader or two.

For the first time, I wrote to Roger Ebert. I don’t have my original email to him, but that’s no problem, because three weeks later I found that Ebert had quoted my email, practically in its entirety.

Brian Hu of Berkeley, CA wrote me: “I watched the film with another Chinese-American and we both found it uproariously funny. In fact, I can’t think of another film this year that has made me laugh as much. At first I thought, finally, a major director has made a universally simple, humorous, and meaningful film that all Americans can easily enjoy and learn from. But reading your review, I’d reconsider it.

“Americans simply are not aware of Chinese comedic traditions. We may know Hong Kong cinema for its wild action movies, but we don’t realize that a good fraction of Cantonese language films are comedies, just as a good part of Hollywood films are comedies. Sadly, the truth is, violence translates well; comedy does not. Chinese comedy is often quite sadistic. Think of those Asian game shows that are parodied on American TV, where contestants do crazy things like endure freezing weather in their underwear while a laugh track of Japanese junior high students giggling plays in the background. Americans may find it cruel, but many Chinese find it hilarious.

“That’s not to say Chinese people are sadistic. They just find some things that we find ‘cruel and depraved’ to be funny. On the other hand, I have not yet met one Taiwanese or mainland Chinese who enjoyed Pulp Fiction or Fargo like we do here in America. Chinese audiences find films like Happy Times charming and affectionate, because although it’s cruel, it’s cruel on a simple, harmless level, something you certainly can’t say about Tarantino’s comedies. It’s like Harpo Marx versus Neil LaBute.”

Roger Ebert, the critic whose language I had once mimicked, and whose opinions I had now rejected, was writing through my own words. The impact of that, to a college junior still in search of his own voice and critical purpose, is immeasurable. I never wrote to Rosenbaum, Hoberman, or Scott. That is because they never asked me for my opinion. Roger Ebert asked for the thoughts of a Chinese reader or two. His response, in turn, showed me that criticism is above all an act of community.


In college, I discovered that I loved writing about movies and that others might even enjoy reading my reviews. Those years were also the beginning of the death of the alternative weekly, so résumés later, I resigned to the reality that I would never be a paid film critic. I went to graduate school in film studies, where I read Noel Burch and Siegfried Kracauer while churning out seminar papers. My itch to review persisted though, and I found company and kinship with the burgeoning online magazine Asia Pacific Arts, which was published at UCLA where I was enrolled. In many ways, movie reviewing kept me sane during grad school, especially as my critical skills and writing habits were being stretched in wacky new directions.

Many, many years later, with diploma and dissertation finally in hand, I had the good fortune of landing a job as the Artistic Director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Having now left the ivory tower, I found myself having to adapt my writing style once again. How do I make my program notes and introductions relevant and meaningful to an everyday, non-academic audience? It was Roger Ebert, now the master of Twitter and the blogosphere, who showed the way. Except this time I didn’t read Ebert to ape his language or form. I turned to Ebert to remind me how to write from the heart and with generosity. A film festival is, after all, part of a community.

As we’re reminded at every “death of criticism” juncture, there is a multitude of critical voices online today. Everyone is just a blog post away from being a critic – and possibly an excellent one at that. But with the critical masses pouring through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, Roger Ebert’s site is one of the few I have bookmarked in my browser, where it’s been since I was on Netscape. I look forward to keeping it there. This fire will never go out.

Watching Golden Slumbers at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

This was a blog post I did for the SDAFF website in 2012, but it disappeared during one of our many website migrations.

Long Beach’s Art Theatre is 12 miles from my childhood home in Cerritos, California. That makes the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s three days of screenings there my closest film festival outings from where I grew up.

Earlier this year, I saw Davy Chou’s excellent new documentary GOLDEN SLUMBERS at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, about as distant from Cerritos as is geographically possible. Seeing it yesterday in Long Beach, I was reminded of why film, which takes us around the world through images and stories, is nevertheless a powerful prism for thinking about home.

Director Davy Chou is a young Parisian of Cambodian ancestry. He’d always heard that he had a grandfather in the old Cambodian film industry, but only recently probed deeper, learning from his aunt that his grandfather was hitmaker Van Chann, who produced films in Cambodia during the 1960s and 70s. This led Chou to Cambodia, where he confronted the ghosts of the “Golden Age” of filmmaking, when 400 films were made in 15 years, but only a few of which have survived the devastating Khmer Rouge era.

Chou’s documentary revisits those years, lingering on images of old spaces (theaters-emptied-out, movie palaces-turned-karaoke bars) and sounds of an era (radio transmissions of film trailers, pop songs engraved on vinyl and digitized for YouTube). The era is evoked through memories of those who made the films, those who idolized the stars, and those who remembered fleeing war through cinema. It’s a film that is, by design, in need of “filling in.” In the absence of footage from the films of the period, Chou stages shadows of the Golden Age: film narratives are recalled through the fog of memory, special effects are evoked obliquely and jokingly, movie faces are remembered through newsprint and fading posters. Collectively, they form a fuzzy picture that we as 21st century filmgoers can fill in so that the Cambodian Golden Age can be resurrected and survive.

Everyone pictures those missing films differently. But I’m sure the images conjured by audience-goers in the Art Theatre auditorium not far away from the stretch of Long Beach called “Little Cambodia” were unlike most imagined by audiences in cities like Berlin, Sydney, or Santa Barbara, where the film had previously played. During the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79, Long Beach became one of the world’s biggest destinations for Cambodian refugees. These were populations who brought Cambodian culture to the United States not through their possessions but through memories of everyday life, including of cinema.

The Q&A after the Long Beach screening of GOLDEN SLUMBERS was more than a filmmaker meet-and-greet, it was a conjuring of ghosts. Multiple audience members recalled seeing no-longer-extant films like The Snake King’s Wife. Some were in their teens or younger in the 1960s and 70s and had hazy memories of the period. But some had strong ties. One was, like Chou, a descendant of a Golden Age filmmaker featured in the film. In the most powerful moment of the discussion, one man walked down the long Art Theatre aisle to talk, in quivers as if he’d been waiting years to do so, about his friendship with Sun Bun Ly, one of the pioneers of Cambodian cinema.

But this was not simply a group recollection of the “homeland.” The Q&A was not only a séance for the glorious past, discoursing with figures who predated war and migration. It was about Long Beach itself. Some audience members remembered seeing some of the surviving films on VHS, pointing to Mary’s Video on Little Cambodia’s Anaheim Street. The younger generation of Cambodian Americans talked about the classics as integral parts of their upbringing as Americans in an immigrant society. And the man who made the trek down the aisle talked about Sun Bun Ly’s later life in the United States, where he had filmmaking plans that stretched beyond the Khmer Rouge and into the streets of Los Angeles County. Director Davy Chou’s role was less as a filmmaker being questioned and more a fellow young person possessing cultural memories that have traversed generations and continents. His film is also about Paris, and the story of a filmmaker who tried unsuccessfully to bring seven prints there in the 1970s, or the story of a Golden Age director whose sadness about the period is shaped by his sense of loss while living in Paris, where he later became a taxi driver.

And the period survives in Little Cambodia and its circles. During the post-screening discussion, Chou talked about a rare Golden Age print found in nearby Norwalk, just a stone’s throw away from my old house in Cerritos. During the screening and after, GOLDEN SLUMBERS awakened the past, but also the present in all of its cultural layers, thickened by stasis, confluence, and imagination. The film came alive for me in ways that it couldn’t when I saw it at a mall megaplex in Hong Kong. Seeing it in Long Beach made me rethink my own neighborhood, its own contours and its own specters. That we had all arrived there, across eight thousand miles during the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, or over the 5000 miles to get to Long Beach from Paris, or even just the 12 I took to drive over from my parent’s house, and that we all came to see the digital beam deliver flickers of half-summoned stories is a testament to the will to remember and the majesty of the film experience.

APAHM Filmmaker Spotlight: Curtis Choy

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.