VIFF 2012: Seeking Asian Female director delves beyond "yellow fever"

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In spite of modern medicine's great strides, numerous diseases remain incurable. Unfortunately, there's one more to add to the list: yellow fever.

Mind you, we're not talking about the viral hemorrhagic illness here, but the slang term for having a fetish for Asians.

American filmmaker Debbie Lum set out to find a cure for this particular condition of the heart with her documentary Seeking Asian Woman (which plays at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 7 and 8). Alas, she failed to achieve her original objective. What she did find, however, was far more "satisfying" to her.

The rollercoaster ride of a film follows a twice-divorced, 60-year-old Californian man, Steven, on his search for an Asian wife. When a 30-year-old Chinese woman, Sandy, travels from China to America to marry him, the documentary morphs into a study of cross-cultural friction.

Lum quickly found her own biases challenged, particularly after meeting Sandy, who had never traveled on a plane before, let alone set foot in America.

"I had an overwhelming urge to want to protect her as I was filming her," Lum says on the line from San Francisco. "And then when I got to know her…I realized that I was kind of projecting my own stereotypes on her about being this kind of victim….She's sort of the definition of a self-made woman….The level of confidence she has about herself is very impressive."

Nonetheless, Lum's role as a detached documentarian was abandoned after being inextricably drawn into the relationship, as a Mandarin-English interpreter for the couple, a confidante for the socially isolated Sandy, and a marriage counselor for the floundering Steven.

Both in the film and by phone, Lum says she felt conflicted about her impact upon her subjects and being in the film. However, she says it was the "most honest way to tell the story" and also discovered that viewers found her inclusion in the film beneficial.

"People have told me…that because the story seems so absurd, in a way—two people who don't really know each other, with a huge age difference, they cannot communicate—they both seem like really foreign characters. They don't seem like people that you can relate to, that having my presence was helpful because it's been sort of like a guide for the story. But that came with a lot of complications."

In spite of those challenges, she ultimately found her views changed after completing the project.

"I think when you're young and you're very emotional about these issues that affect you personally, it's hard to kind of step outside of yourself and see it from a kind of bigger picture, and see it from multiple perspectives, which is what the film ended up making me do, because I was really seeing it from my perspective as an Asian American woman."

She says she even exorcised some personal demons by making the film.

"I think I try to be more generous to people [now]," she says. "Because I think even if Steven had a superficial understanding of Sandy…he was so committed to this person. He was actually committed to finding out who she really was."

Lum isn't alone in feeling changed by the film.

"One woman, who was Asian American, came up to and she said, 'I loved your film, but I'm so confused right now. Because everything that I ever thought before is really turned upside down, and now I'm not sure what to do'," Lum says, laughing.

Reactions to the film are diverse and complicated because the issues themselves are complicated—and ones that aren't often addressed, such as the "racial hierarchy that happens in relationships".

While angst and animosity exists in both straight and gay Asian North American communities regarding yellow fever (called Rice Queens in the gay community), Lum points out that this often blinds people from recognizing the full spectrum of relationships that may exist.

"Within the Asian American community, they see these unequal relationships between men who are going overseas," she says. "It could be a gay man going to Thailand looking for a young Thai boy or a straight white man looking for some woman from the Philippines, and they see these inequitable relationships, and that kind of tarnishes ones that are actually more equitable….It's so easy for everyone on all sides to fall into the obvious stereotyping, and just want to see a pattern….There is a pattern, sure. But there's also people and individuals who are in a relationship and who are going to defy any expectation or break the rule."

Lum herself knows what it's like to be pursued by guys with yellow fever. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, acutely aware of how different she was from everyone else as a Chinese American due to the lack of other Asian Americans.

"Back then, when I was growing up, being Asian American, you're pretty much invisible," she says. "No one was really much interested in you, unless they happened to be one of these guys that had yellow fever. And those men all kind of could be outcasts….So actually it does influence your identity. I've always felt that this topic of Asian fetish, whether it affects women or men, even if you're a straight Asian American man, it really affects our identity collectively."

However, she also recognizes what the psychological impetus for this racial fetish often is.

"Generally speaking, I think, a lot of the men that I had interviewed before I met Steven, had…an idealized notion of what an Asian woman was, and that's because they didn't have a lot of experience with it. They were actually coming from the point of view of 'Oh, I've had a lot of bad experiences with women who are not Asian', usually Caucasian women or women of their own ethnicity…and so they're looking for something different. It's usually because they don't know that person that they're able to kind of idealize and imagine that person to be something more than they are. But when it comes down to it, when you actually are in a relationship with that person…the real person is very different from your imagination."

This film isn't Lum's final say on the subject; she's creating a series of webisodes (that will be posted at the film's website) featuring interviews she conducted with men attracted to Asian women that didn't make the film's final cut.

Although she acknowledges that the film doesn't provide any easy answers for yellow fever, she remains drawn to the issue.

"I'm interested in that thing where you're fascinated by it but you're also repulsed by it at the same time," she says of her approach, with a self-effacing laugh.

You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.

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