Asian Canadian female filmmakers are doing it for themselves and inspiring others to do the same.
"I said I wouldn't make a big deal out of being Chinese." These words, the opening line of character Jade Li, played by Sandra Oh, in 1994's Double Happiness, may be true for many Asian Canadians entering the movie industry. Born and raised in Canada, they may dream like any other actor of being the next Kate Winslet or Orlando Bloom, starring in Hollywood blockbusters or a hot TV series. Yet there's a reality check. As fictional actor Jade discovered in the local film, a Chinese accent, not a Parisian one, is expected of an Asian actor, even if English is your first language. But that doesn't necessarily mean ethnic identity has to be a hindrance, a crutch, or the definition of a career, whether you're in front of the camera or behind it.
Oh is exemplary of that. Numerous roles in films such as Sideways, Last Night, and 3 Needles were colourblind. Those that were racially specific, such as in local director Mina Shum's Double Happiness–which will be screened on May 31 as part of the Canadian Classics series–or as the working single mom in Shum's third film, Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity (which screened on May 12 for an Asian Heritage Month event), gave voice to the modern Asian Canadian experience.
In a phone interview, Shum acknowledges that racial challenges remain in the industry. "I think it's still really hard, even in Hollywood, to be an Asian actor or actress, unless you're one of the top 10. But who are they?" she asks with a laugh. "There's a million middle-ground white actors that we can name. You try doing that with Asian actors who are working in North America and their names become a lot less recognizable." Looking back at her first feature, she notes that "there were way less roles then, but there's still not very many roles now for Asian women." She also faced her own barriers as a filmmaker. "When I made Double Happiness I literally had a distributor say to me, 'How you gonna get bums in seats with an all-Chinese cast? Who's gonna watch this movie?'"
The audience for Double Happiness, however, hasn't been limited to one community. "It is a film for everyone," Shum says, "not just to celebrate our Asianness, which is cool too. I think the reason the film did so well is it reached out beyond." Shum believes the themes of the film transcend identity politics. "I think the reason the film has survived this long and people still like it and it has resonance is it's about finding the courage to dream. And I think that speaks to a lot of underrepresented people in general going, 'No one understands me, no one gets me, I don't see myself reflected anywhere, and I've gotta figure out how to be me.'"
On both sides of the camera, Asian Canadian women are rising to that challenge. Chinese Canadian Barbara K. Lee founded the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and filmed the documentaries Girls Kissing and Between the Laughter. Japanese Canadian director Linda Ohama's documentary Obaachan's Garden, about her grandmother's reunion with the daughter she gave up in Japan, won the audience award at the 2001 Vancouver film festival. Straight cover girl Steph Song, voted FHM Asia's sexiest woman in the world in 2006, starred in CBC's Dragon Boys and local film Everything's Gone Green. Another cover girl, Julia Kwan, won a Claude Jutra Award for Eve & the Fire Horse. Korean Canadian Grace Park is a series regular on the new Battlestar Galactica.
And like Oh, who began by starring in biopics of Asian Canadian women such as local author Evelyn Lau and Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, former Edmonton broadcast journalist Olivia Cheng is drawing on her heritage to propel her career.
Cheng starred as one of five abandoned Chinese girls in the Golden Globe–nominated TV movie Broken Trail, which aired in the U.S. in 2006. The film was set in the late 1800s when Chinese women were brought to America and sold into prostitution.
In a phone interview from her Vancouver home, Cheng says she was shocked to learn about this segment of Chinese American history. "My honest reaction when I heard that there was this stupid cowboy movie where the cowboys save the Chinese chicks, I was like 'Pffft!'..But then I actually read it and thought, 'What? Did this really happen?' And I started researching it, and it kinda just became something that was really important for me to be a part of because if this sparks some dialogue and some debate and some awareness to the issue, then I feel like I've done something I can be proud of."
Cheng has continued to pursue socially conscious works. "I really think that there's projects out there that you can do that really spark the human consciousness and make you think about issues and situations that are so outside your comfort zone and your world...I think that's such an amazing thing to be able to do, to be able to make people feel so deeply for another person's plight."
Her next role is the lead in a biopic of Chinese American author Iris Chang, who chronicled the atrocities, including rape, torture, and murder, that the Japanese army committed during its 1937 attack on Nanking. Chang was credited with bringing the story to western consciousness with her book The Rape of Nanking. Cheng became so obsessed with adapting Chang's story to the screen that she went to San Francisco, sifted through Chang's tapes and notes in archives, and met with Chang's widower (Chang died in 2004), friends, and relatives. Nine months after deciding that the task was too daunting, she was notified by her agent of a casting call for the role of Iris Chang in a movie coproduced by the Vancouver-based Canada ALPHA (Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia). Cheng lobbied for the role and won it.
In spite of her successes, Cheng has struggled with her own identity. "I realize that for Asian actors to walk into a room with the attitude that they're the ethnic wild card amongst the seven other shades of white that are also going for the same part, you create a liability for yourself. I look at it now as 'What is it that I bring as a human being', not as a Chinese person."
She also notes that things are changing. "You read quotes from other Asian actors talking about being limited and being stereotypes, and that's a total truth...But at the same time, especially in Vancouver, the casting directors in this city are fantastic. I go in for stuff that doesn't even call for a Chinese person...I really feel there's a shot now at just getting good roles.'"
Cheng also realized her biggest enemy was herself. "I never look at me being Chinese as hindering me anymore...Finally, I just started to realize who's holding me back the most? It's my own attitude."
Shum concurs by emphasizing that if there aren't opportunities out there, it's DIY time. "I hear Asian actors going, 'There aren't enough parts for me.' Well, you know what? He who owns intellectual property wins. So if you can think of something and write it and get some actors to be in it, it might actually catch on." In fact, Shum's films are based on motivating people to do something, "whether it's moving out, which is in Double Happiness, or saving the world from doom, which is my next film..but it's really always about trying to find the courage to come outside of your own neuroses, insecurities, and inadequacies–or perceived inadequacies–and break out of that and go, 'I'm gonna be who I wanna be' and take action. That's what motivates me."
Hopefully, the works of Shum, the historical projects of Cheng, and the films of other female Asian Canadian directors and actors will inspire audiences–Asian and non-Asian alike. As Shum says, "It's up to us."
The Canadian Classics reunion screening and party for Double Happiness is next Thursday (May 31) at 7:30 p.m. at the Vancity Theatre. It marks the 10th anniversary of the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. For more info, visit www.movingpictures.ca/ or www.academy.ca/ . To reserve tickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .