“Baby Steps” is a film released in 2015, written, directed and staring Barney Cheng. He plays the lead character, Danny Lee, a Taiwanese-American living in Los Angeles with a Caucasian boyfriend, Tate. They’ve decided to have a child, through surrogacy, although Tate is a little less invested in the idea than Danny. Added to the mix is Danny’s mother, who’s convinced she’s never going to have a grandchild, while all her friends are celebrating the births of their “Sūnzi 孫子”(grandchildren).
I hadn’t heard of this movie prior to last week, when my sister sent me a link to it, thinking I’d be interested in watching it. I have to admit that my first thought when reading the description was, “why did it take so long for a movie to come out about a gay mixed-race couple going on a surrogacy journey?” You have to understand, my husband and I started our surrogacy journey back in late 2003, more than a decade earlier than the release of this film, and our daughter from surrogacy just turned 13.
It was fascinating to watch the various events around surrogacy unfold for Danny, as I had some similar experiences with surrogacy and with my own parents. There was a large difference though, I was lucky by comparison in that I was older when I reached the point in my life when I was able to, and ready to, have a child. In “Baby Steps,” when Danny’s mother finally finds out her son is planning to have a child via surrogacy, she inserts herself into the process in unexpected ways, producing funny and memorable scenes, ones that are crazy, yet believable if you have an Asian mom.
Given my experience with the surrogacy progress, some scenes did seem completely unbelievable (usually the egg donor is anonymous, so I was surprised to see them meeting various egg donors), and I was left wondering how they negotiated all the legal issues of having the birth in Taiwan. But leaving the practical issues aside, the movie had funny, serious, and sad scenes, and many brought out plenty of empathy for Danny’s (and Tate’s) situation. Perhaps even more believable was Danny’s Ma’s stance on her gay son, keeping his sexuality hidden from her friends, and eventually her determination to do everything possible to find the right surrogate to carry her grandchild.
One other side note, the movie did remind me a bit of “The Wedding Banquet“, the 1993 movie directed by Ang Lee. It was the first movie I ever saw to feature a Asian-Caucasian mixed race gay couple. While the films were created a generation apart, there’s definitely a similarity to them in style and content. Both should be on your viewing list if you’re a gay Asian American and should probably make your list even if you’re not.
“After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a local investigation is opened and a detective is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop. In a hyper-modern thriller told via the technology devices we use every day to communicate, David must trace is daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.”
Almost nobody discusses Crazy Rich Asians (the film) without mentioning the movie’s soundtrack, which is pretty cool, because how often does this happen anymore? Soundtrack albums used to be huge marketing tools for films, but unless the film is a musical, nowadays you seldom hear people talk about soundtracks. I suspect the persistent conversation means the soundtrack in CRA is especially effective. Its first few spins took me immediately to specific places they appear in the movie, which may also be a sign of its effectiveness.
I wrote a song for you
Waiting for Your Return (Jasmine Chen) (2:58)
Money (That’s What I Want) (Cheryl K) (3:12)
Wo Yao Ni De Ai (I Want Your Love — I Want You to Be My Baby) (Grace Chang) (2:41)
My New Swag (VaVa featuring Ty and Nina Wang) (4:05)
Give Me a Kiss (Jasmine Chen) (3:01)
Ren Sheng Jiu Shi Xi (Yao Lee) (3:02)
Ni Dong Bu Dong (Do You Understand) (Lilian Chen) (2:32)
Wo Yao Fei Shang Qing Tian (Grace Chang) (3:17)
Material Girl (200 Du) (4:25)
Can’t Help Falling in Love (Kina Grannis) (3:21)
Wo Yao Ne De Ai (I Want Y our Love — I Want You to Be My Baby (Jasmine Chen) (2:04)
Money (That’s What I Want) (Cheryl K featuring Awkwafina) (3:12)
Turn into something beautiful
I’m pretty sensitive to the way music is used in film, and I dislike most soundtracks and most movie scores. This one impressed me beginning with the opening swing of “Waiting for Your Return,” then it surprised me with interesting Chinese-language covers of familiar songs. I didn’t know anything about the soundtrack before going in, so covers of “Material Girl,” and “Yellow” caught me off guard and really work with the moods of their scenes and the context of the film’s plot.
I had one moment where the song choice took me out of the movie for about nine seconds, when I recognized Kina Grannis’s cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and couldn’t understand how it existed in the film right when it did, but then it all made sense. You’ll see what I mean either when you see the movie or when you look at the acting credits.
That’s really about the movie, not about this album, and this is what I’m talking about. Listening to the soundtrack is remembering the movie, which perhaps makes it a great soundtrack, but I wonder if it makes it not as good an album. Because Crazy Rich Asians is a good movie, I’m going to dismiss this possibility; yet if it had been a terrible movie, and if the soundtrack album kept reminding you of scenes in this terrible movie, would it be a terrible soundtrack, no matter how good the songs?
A moot consideration in this case.
It seems a sequel film is in the works, and I have to say I’m here for it and really interested in what’ll be on the soundtrack.
Your skin and bones
Best song: Yeah, I’m going with the crowd on this. “Yellow.”
Second best song: The closing credits version of “Money,” the one with Awkwafina’s raps.
Surprise: “Vote” by Miguel. It’s the first interesting thing I’ve ever heard from him. I really like this.
Song to make you want to call your mom (do it!): “Yellow.”
Song to make you want to text your ex (don’t do it!): “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Song to make you go “Wha?”: “Material Girl.”
Twenty-five years ago, an Asian American industry movement seemed imminent. I was young and returned from Hong Kong as the lead in Clara Law’s Wonton Soup. Major strides were being made with the successful releases of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Map of The Human Heart, The Joy Luck Club, All-American Girl (highest-ranked new series of the season), and Vanishing Son.
My acting success was directly entwined with this movement. From summer ’93 to spring ’94, I booked a high-profile indie film, big-budget commercial film, sweeps-period telefilm, Star Trek: TNG guest star (which was just plain cool), and the pilot episode of Margaret Cho’s ground-breaking series as a would-be suitor. My career was taking off and dreams were tantalizingly achievable. Success seemed right around the corner!
However, despite the nation’s readiness to embrace Asian American actors on the large and small screens, the overall failure of All-American Girl – due to the network’s mishandling of Margaret Cho, unenlightened writing, and negative community reaction – brought everything to a screeching halt. The proverbial balloon popped and studios and networks reverted back to tried-and-true non-inclusive projects.
Popped balloons and fears of backlash
Over the next decade, though, I remained optimistic as I continued to land guest star roles, buoyed by the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition’s efforts to increase diversity on both sides of the camera—but my career eventually plateaued as momentum proved elusive for an Asian American actor in Hollywood. Along with being considered “too manly” and often hearing “we’re not going that way,” I sadly discovered that white writers hesitated to write POC-specific roles because they feared backlash from advocacy groups and feigned ignorance due to their lack of life experience.
Yet, I persisted in following my passion and overall conditions continued to improve with the help of various initiatives (internships, showcases, staffing mandates, etc.), but this forced transition of inclusive change often resulted in feelings of marginalization on staffs and in writers rooms. Some actors did find success as series regulars or supporting leads, but more often than not diversity and inclusion were reflected in the delivery guy, the nurse, or the silent extras in the background. By that time, I reached an age where I just fell through the cracks.
Thus, as an Asian American actor, my optimism waned. I lost confidence that the industry would undergo real and meaningful change, not even allowing me the ability to provide for my growing family. So I left Hollywood.
Business mandates, game-changers, and new optimism
Fast forward in my absence, social media and streaming content begin to wreak havoc on the Hollywood landscape. Tinseltown undergoes a seismic transformation, becoming an ultra-modern Wild West with seemingly unlimited access points and distribution outlets. Decision-makers are forced to adapt or be left behind. Content creators and viewers’ voices demand change on a viral level, and the small screen responds for Asian Americans with the shows Selfie, Fresh Off the Boat, and Dr. Ken.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the movie Crazy Rich Asians is coming out today, August 15th, nationally. I was able to see a pre-screening a week early that the filmmakers promoted on the auspicious lucky date of 8/8/2018.
The story follows New Yorker Rachel Chu as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young, to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life.
As it turns out, there were questions about casting even before the book hit stores. Mr. Kwan said a producer who wanted to option the book had suggested that he make Rachel white. Mr. Kwan refused. “It didn’t surprise me,” said Constance Wu, the Chinese-American actress who ultimately secured the role and who has been a vocal critic of Hollywood whitewashing. “I’m just glad that Kevin stuck to his guns. It takes a lot of courage to say no to something, especially if you’re scared that everything might slip away if you don’t say yes.”
There’s been a big movement called #GoldOpen (which I am a part of, organizing a theater buyout for the Cornell Asian Alumni Association, other Ivy League Asian American alumni associations, and the Duke Alumni Association):
Digital media entrepreneur Bing Chen has seized on director Jon Chu’s comment that “Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a movie, it’s a movement” and is promoting the movie on social media with the #GoldOpen hashtag in the hopes of drawing a record box office.
So there are high expectations for the film, and I, like many, was worried that the movie would not live up to the hype. But it does, at least for me—the themes of the romantic comedy genre are pretty universal, even if the characters are Asian and Asian American and the film is set in Singapore and many of the characters are in the 1 percent, the movie should have a broad appeal. As Wikipedia defines a romantic comedy:
In a typical romantic comedy the two lovers tend to be young, likeable, and apparently meant for each other, yet they are kept apart by some complicating circumstance (e.g., class differences, parental interference; a previous girlfriend or boyfriend) until, surmounting all obstacles, they are finally reunited.
And Crazy Rich Asians fits the mold very well, though I wouldn’t say that the movie is completely formulaic. If you like romantic comedies like Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, or Love Actually, I’m pretty sure you’ll like Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s not as original as, say, Groundhog Day, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or The Princess Bride.
I have to say I knew I was going to like the film when in an early scene, Nick tries to convince Rachel to visit Singapore, and I heard the word “ahma” (grandmother). Just the word “ahma” was an “aha” moment, making me think, “Wow, I think that is the first time I’ve ever heard that word in an American movie.”
Constance Wu as Rachel and Henry Golding as Nick are great together, and Golding makes a great leading man—quite handsome and physically fit, definitely no Long Duk Dong. Michelle Yeoh is excellent as Nick’s mom Eleanor and the family matriarch, playing reserved and stern for maximum intimidation, almost in a The Devil Wears Prada Meryl Streep/Miranda Priestly kind of way.
But the breakout star and comedic relief is actress and rapper Awkwafina who plays Peik Lin, Rachel’s close friend from college. As a Duke MBA, I’m a big fan of Ken Jeong (Duke ’90)—and although he doesn’t have a huge part, he plays Peik Lin’s father, and he’s funny (as expected) when he’s on screen. Nico Santos also does a terrific job as Oliver T’sien, Nick’s gay, sassy, and well-styled second cousin.
I was captivated by the stunning and exquisitely poised Gemma Chan, who plays Astrid Teo, Nick’s cousin. Chan is absolutely gorgeous in this film and I really liked her portrayal of her character (which, I read in one tweet, was quite faithful to her character described in the book). I was aware of Chan before, since I had seen her in the AMC television series Humans, where she played an anthropomorphic robot (called “synths” in the series).
There are also a host of other actors and actresses I could go on about, but this is supposed to be a mini-review.
Overall, the movie is very entertaining and very funny. You get to see what the 1 percent in Singapore and Asia live like (maybe somewhat exaggerated). The movie is gorgeously shot. Lots of food and fashion porn, and as one review put it, affluence porn.
What Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand, Crazy Rich Asians might do for Singapore. I’ve visited Singapore twice, and in the movie, Singapore never looked better (though the last time I visited was in January 1999).
There are the twists and turns like in any romantic comedy, but the audience hopes and usually gets the happy ending it wants. I read The Joy Luck Club before seeing the movie over 25 years ago, but I have not read Crazy Rich Asians. I kind of want to now, to learn a little bit more about the characters and their backgrounds. With so many characters, it’s hard to have all the characters developed within a time span of two hours. Additionally, author Kevin Kwan followed up his bestseller with two more00—China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.
Before the movie started, I read tweets about #crazyrichasians to see what the reaction to the movie was—some wrote that they laughed and cried, and I thought that maybe the crying was a bit melodramatic. But to be honest, I did tear up a little (I’m kind of a closet romantic—then again, I also tear up whenever I see the end of Armageddon with this line, “Colonel Willie Sharp, United States Air Force, ma’am. Requesting permission to shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I’ve ever met.”)
For some reason, these songs in Chinese really reinforced that Crazy Rich Asians is a special film. Although I was born and raised in the United States, as a Taiwanese American, I did go to Chinese school and did speak a little Mandarin with my parents. Most Asian Americans (due to a lot of immigration in the past 20 to 30 years), were born overseas, and still have a very strong connection to Asia. However, from reading public tweets and YouTube review comments, a lot of non-Chinese speaking people seem to like the soundtrack as well. There’s a certain familiarity yet uniqueness with these songs that were a very thoughtful magical touch by director Jon M. Chu.
Speaking of whom, I haven’t seen any of Chu’s previous movies, which included the Step Up series of movies, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. In fact, I’m not even sure I had really heard of Chu, and was really surprised to learn that he grew up in Los Altos Hills, not too far from where I live. But what was a complete shock to me was to learn that Chu is the son of owner and chef of popular Chinese restaurants in Silicon Valley (and among the oldest—opened in 1970) in Los Altos, Chef Chu’s. This restaurant is literally like a 10-to-15 minute walk from where I live.
I wrote a review about how I really liked the Pixar Short Bao that appears with The Incredibles 2, but apparently not everyone one likes as much as I did or even gets it. A number of articles (some spoilers) like this one, this one, and this one, mention how some non-Asian Americans just don’t get it. Some were confused or even laughed. Leaving in the Asian American bubble where I live, I initially thought “WTF!” but on further thought, I realized I shouldn’t have been surprised.
One niece of mine said she was bawling at the end, and the Daughter said she was about to cry. I think if you have never faced the tension of having to deal with conflicting cultures in your household tearing at you in different directions, its much easier to not understand. I first saw Bao at Pixar, and I don’t recall any one really laughing at the points mentioned in the articles. Then again, there were a lot of Asians Americans there and also a lot of people who knew about Bao since many of them helped make it. When I saw it with The Wife in a commercial theatre with a mostly non-Asian audience, there definitely were some annoying laughs.
I still think Bao has some universal themes such as the tension between generations, but other parts resonate strongly with many Asian Americans. I did find it sad that many people just didn’t get it, but again, as I mentioned, I really shouldn’t have been surprised.
Accompanying the Pixar movie The Incredibles 2 is a short called Bao. It starts, as you can see from the trailer above, when a woman who has just cooked some bao is shocked when one of them comes to life. While we have talked about Russell from Up being Asian American, this short was striking in that in deals directly with issues that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians face.
Bao was created by Domee Shi, who moved from China to Canada when she was two. She joined Pixar as an intern, and eventually pitched the Bao concept and got it made. The mom in Bao was inspired by her own mom and other Chinese women in her life.
I really liked Bao. While I am not of Chinese origin, it spoke to me of my own experiences with food and family. A bao becomes more than just a bun – it becomes a metaphor for many things. I am also around the same age as the mom, making her not just Asian American/Canadian but universal concerns very meaningful to me. So if you go to see The Incredibles 2 (also recommended) and are thinking about getting popcorn when you see Bao come up on the screen, don’t. It will be worth your time, whether you are Asian American, American Canadian, or not.
One of the things I have really enjoyed after having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 has been attending the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, which is now known as CAAMFest, now its 36th year.
This year’s opening night premiere was a documentary – AN AMERICAN STORY: NORMAN MINETA – about groundbreaking elected official and civil servant, Japanese American Norman Mineta – the first Asian American elected to San Jose, California City Council, first Asian American elected to be mayor of San Jose (first Asian American mayor of any major city in the continental United States), first Asian American Congressman elected in the continental United States, first Asian American to serve as a cabinet member to serve a President (AND also both in a Democratic and Republican administration). AND first Asian American to have an airport named after him (Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport).
Prior to the documentary’s premiere, Claudine Cheng and Willie Brown presented Norman Mineta with the APA Heritage Award for Lifetime Impact:
“His life in politics, skillfully captured by director Dianne Fukami, stands in stark contrast to the current White House occupant. As a 10-term U.S. representative from Silicon Valley, Mineta kept his ego in check while passing seminal legislation, notably a bill granting reparations to Japanese Americans like his family who were incarcerated during World War II. His motto was “If you don’t care who gets the credit, you can do many things.””
After the screening, there was a Q&A session with Norman Mineta and the filmmakers:
““An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy” will have its world premiere Thursday night in San Francisco.
The film about the former San Jose mayor, Congressman and cabinet secretary to two U.S. presidents is the opening night film of the Center for Asian American Media film festival, known as CAAMFest. Mineta, 86, also will be honored by the city of San Francisco on opening night as part of the 40th anniversary festivities for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Mineta’s story really is a classic American tale of success, with the tragic irony that begins it: As an 11-year-old, he was interned with his family at Heart Mountain, Wyo., during World War II. (Even that story has a cinematic twist: Mineta met fellow Boy Scout and future Sen. Alan Simpson there.) In 1971, he became the first Asian-American elected mayor of a major U.S. city and served two decades in Congress, starting in 1975. He was appointed U.S. Secretary of Commerce by President Clinton in 2000 and served as Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush in 2001.”
A big change from previous years is that the film festival is now being held in May, to coincide with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, instead of being held in February or March like it has in the past.
Also, since 2013, the CAAMFEST organizers have expanded the nature of the festival beyond films to incorporate food and music programs and over time, increasingly more to convey cultural experience through the world’s most innovative Asian and Asian American artists.
This year’s festival theme – “Culture, In Every Sense”- is emphasized throughout the program with expanded music and food sections, a virtual reality project that is also produced by CAAM, and a special closing night performance by Bay Area native, Brenda Wong Aoki.
A little peak behind the curtain over here at 8Asians: we get sent press releases on anything Asian or Asian American—be it a book, movie, comic book, graphic novel or new business. Most of it isn’t worth paying attention to. But when it comes to horror movies, our fearless editor Joz knows how much I love them and forwards them for me to review.
That’s how Gehenna: Where Death Lives ended up in my email. The movie is being released nationally on Friday, May 4, 2018 in theaters and on demand. The film is about five people (three developers, one shady businessman, and a local) who enter a hidden World War II bunker in Saipan, and realize it’s way more than a bunker. The film is the directorial debut of Hiroshi Katagiri, who previously did special effects for Jurassic Park III, Pacific Rim, and others, and stars Doug Jones, the star of the Academy Award winning The Shape of Water.
The movie starts a bit slowly but picks up once—and I’m not giving away anything here—they get trapped in the bunker after disrespecting the locals and the local legends. There are just enough jump scares and creepy moments to satisfy a horror fan’s lust for scares. I’m not sure I totally understood the legend underlying the film, but when I figured out the twist in the end it made the whole thing worth watching.
What fascinated me most about the movie though was Saipan. First, it was sooooooooooooo beautiful. I kept asking myself, how did I not know about this place? Once I got past its beauty, I was struck by how little I knew about the island. During the movie, I found myself Googling its history—especially what happened during the second World War. But what blew me away most was that I didn’t even realize it was part of the United States. In fact, I found a Huffington Post article that called it the most beautiful place in America that no one has heard of. I guess I know where I’m going on my next family vacation.
Alfa released a new music video April 12 for “Round and Round,” a track on June 2017’s album Spark & Fury, which you should totally check out if you haven’t already heard it. I think it’s an interesting choice for a music video since it’s not one of the more memorable songs on the album, but there aren’t any bad tracks here, so why not? The video is “directed by my hubby,” Rob Bieselin, she says on Twitter.
The one who’s on your mind
I only became aware of Alfa a couple of months ago, so something is definitely wrong with my music radar, because she should have crossed my path ages ago. She has a voice with flavors of Divinyls singer Chrissy Amphlett’s I’m-being-coy-but-I-could-get-psycho-on-you-at-any-time delivery, plus a little bit of Natalie Imbruglia. The easiest comparison (‘though not on this song) is to Ingrid Michaelson’s ukulele-driven, playful, joyous thoughfulness, but I hear a pleasing edginess that makes Alfa more interesting.
It’s a pretty good video. I’m fully down with the video-projected-on-and-past-her device, and except for the creepy eyes on both sides of her body part, I like the choices. Alfa occupies the same spot in the frame throughout the song, so we get movement mostly from her body angle and the shifting light from the projected video. I could do without Alfa’s actual spinning, which I find heavy-handed. Cuts to different angles work for me, though.
The song’s theme is pretty heavy, and Alfa has nice screen presence, so at first the clips where she’s messing with her hair disappointed me. In these shots where she’s not singing the words, it would have been bolder to let her just look into the camera without distracting hand movement. However, we do get that long, lonely gaze at the end. I really admire this decision and the video works better without preludes to it earlier in the sequence.
Those last fifteen seconds make the video for me, and I like the song quite a bit more than I did before I saw it.