FRONT COVER, the newest film from Hong Kong Director Ray Yeung, is being released in Hong Kong this week. The film, about a Chinese American fashion stylist who detests his Asian heritage who is assigned to style photo shoot for a visiting Chinese actor, explores Asian gay stereotypes as well as fears of coming out and being ones self. We got a chance to sit down and ask Ray a few questions in advance of the release of his upcoming film in Hong Kong.
Dim Sum: How much time did you spend writing the script to develop the main characters?
Altogether it took over a year to write the script. I developed it in three months for a screenwriting class while I was doing my Masters Degree at Columbia University. After I graduated, I took it out and rewrote it again and again for twelve months.
During pre-production, I rewrote the script every time after rehearsals with the actors. This last stage was very important as it helped to match the characters in your head with real people. Suddenly your characters have energy and personality you had never imagined.
Dim Sum: Why did you decide to shoot this film in New York City?
FRONT COVER is deliberately set in New York because the vibrant city represents the American Dream for Ryan, my protagonist. Many scenes unfold in Chinatown and on 5th Avenue, which represents Ryan’s dream of moving away from the ghetto of Chinatown to the glamour of Fifth Avenue.
And New York City is such a beautiful backdrop for a romantic love story. Growing up, I had always wanted to see a movie about two Asian guys falling in love in New York City, you know just like Breakfast At Tiffany’s. But of course you could never find one, so I decided to make my own version.
Dim Sum: Front Cover has been screened at all the biggest LGBT film festivals. What question do you often get from the audience?
Ray: The question I often asked is why did I set the movie in the fashion industry. The reason is because I think it is so interesting that Ryan’s job is a fashion stylist. His work orientated around changing the image of someone so that he is more presentable to the world. This fits right into the character’s own issue.
Ryan does not want to be associated with his Chinese heritage, so he purposely tries to cover it up by pretending to be very Western and sophisticated, to the extent that he would not date any Asian men.
Fashion is an industry, which is about making one feel more confident about oneself by covering up one’s insecurity. So I feel this world suits the theme of the movie really well.
Director: Ray Yeung
Dim Sum: Your film has a great cast. Jake Choi (Ryan) and James Chen (Ning) are both very good actors. Where did you find these amazing actors?
Ray: The casting took a long time and it was difficult because not a lot of Asian actors have a track record, so we basically had to see everybody on both East and West coasts, and actually Canada as well, and some others in Asia.
We were very lucky. We hired a casting director; she really liked the script and was willing to do it for not a lot of money.
So we saw everybody and we did a lot of casting…finally we had a few actors that we really liked and we tried to match them up together.
Our screen test was having them kiss each other, just to see whether they have a fear of kissing another man and also whether they feel comfortable being open and romantic with the other person.
The funny story is that I was so sure Jake Choi, our leading man, was gay. I even showed the auditions to my gay friends and they all confirmed that he was gay. Right after I had casted him, we went out for coffee and he had to sit me down and come out to me, to tell me he was straight!
Dim Sum: You used Asian actors in your last two feature films. Those are not stereo-typical gay Asian characters that you see in a western world film. Do you want to use your films to portray the new gay Asian image for the West?
Ray: Asian men are rarely seen as sex symbol in the West. In my films I always portray gay Asian men as the desirable ones who often have the power to choose their own destiny. The characters may be struggling with his own identity problem but he is still successful and confident; he may have his own issues, but never a victim who is helpless and sad.
The West tends to portray Asian men as weak, asexual, nerdy and stupid. They are either there for comic relief or just as a sidekick. They are two-dimensional, never have any romantic interest and never get the girl (or boy).
Alternatively, they are portray as gangsters – cruel, vile, corrupted and sneaky. Hollywood haven’t really changed these stereotypes yet and possibly won’t for another ten years. So as an Asian filmmaker I feel it is my duty to change this negative representation and show Asian men as desirable, intelligent and hot!
Dim Sum: We have many filmmakers produce gay Asian films in the last two years in South East Asia. What do you think about Asian Gay Film culture?
Ray: I think Asian Gay Film culture is getting stronger and more sophisticated and diverse. I remember ten years ago when I was programming for the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, we were struggling to find queer Asian films. Most of the ones we found had quite low production cost. There were only a handful of Asian countries, which had produced gay films.
Nowadays there are a lot more Asian filmmakers who have made gay films. There are queer movies being made by many different Asian countries showing a diverse culture, which is brilliant. The contents are also very diverse and the production value is getting higher and higher as more countries are getting more open about homosexuality.
Recently, the Asian Queer Film Festival Alliance was formed. It consists of 14 Asian Queer Film Festivals. I think it is fantastic that there are so many gay Asian Film festivals, and furthermore I am very proud that the Hong Kong one is the “big sister” to all these festivals as we are the longest running Lesbian and Gay Festival in Asia.
The aim of the Alliance is to highlight and promote gay Asian films to the West. In Europe almost all the gay film festivals only show movies with Caucasians in it. It seems the European Queer film festival programmers only want to program films with white people falling in love. The Alliance aims to change that.
By Joe Lam