Interview with Filmmaker Yunah Hong
By Steve Su
Yunah Hong has been making films since 1990 with her first short film Memory/All Echo. Since then, her work has won numerous accolades, such as the CINE Golden Eagle Award with her documentary Between the Lines: Asian American Women's Poetry (2001). Her film Through the Milky Way (1992) was awarded First Prize in Video Art at the 1992 Tam Tam International Video Festival in Italy. Here Now, a drama Hong wrote, produced, and directed, won the Special Jury Award at the 2nd Seoul Short Film Festival.
Her latest film, Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, is an revealing and inspiring look into the famed Chinese actress from the 1920's and 30's. Hong was kind enough to sit down with us recently to discuss this latest work as well as her career.
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words is still a work in progress. However, at a recent screening at New York's Museum of Chinese Americans, the film is obviously very close to completion. Although I was already aware of Wong's story, this documentary revealed details about the actress in such a provocative way that I was intrigued about her life all over again.
In the film, Hong included comprehensive information about Wong's background and illustrious career. She also incorporated interviews with Wong's acquaintances, historians, as well as actors who were inspired by Wong. But the most interesting aspect of the film was Hong's use of an actress to play Anna May Wong. Unlike many documentaries which simply use voice-over narrators, Hong had the actress (played by Doan Ly) tell Wong's story as Wong herself. This interesting angle made the film seem almost autobiographical. "From the very beginning, I really wanted to use an actress. But I never had a budget for it," Hong explains. "[But people] kept complaining that they didn't get a sense of Anna May Wong. So that's when I took a risk, borrowed money, and shot footage with the actress." The risk definitely paid off, as it made the film much more personalized.
To date, Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words is Hong's biggest project. "Actual shooting started around the beginning of 2003, but the research goes back longer," according to Hong. The planned completion date for the film is June 2010. Once completed, Hong plans to send it to various film festivals, both in the U.S. and abroad. She also plans to do outreach programs to generate interest in the film. Hong says, "My ultimate goal is to broadcast it on PBS, so more people can learn about her story."
Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich from Shanghai Express
Credit: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
One of the most difficult aspects Hong had to deal with during the making of this film is budgetary limitations. Although Hong wrote, produced, and directed the film herself, she still had to manage the costs of her filming crew, sets, and actress. And sometimes, the budget simply wasn't there. But given the dedication of this filmmaker, Hong often spent her own money to continue her work. "For some reason, I felt like I had to do this," she says. As of this writing, Hong is still actively looking for additional funds to help complete the project.
If there is one thing Hong wants her audience to take away from her film, it is what a courageous woman Anna May Wong is. Unbeknownst to many, Wong had to tackle many race and gender issues of the time. Hong feels a lot of people may just think of the actress as a pretty face, but she wants to convey that Wong had real intelligence and the courage to fight for what she believes. "She really pushed the boundaries of different things," Hong elaborates. "I want young people to get it, and maybe they can in some ways apply it to their own lives."
Yunah Hong was born in Seoul, Korea, where she received her Bachelors in Fine Arts in 1985. She then moved to the U.S., where she wanted to explore different media types and further her education. She became a fan of Nam June Paik, whose work often revolve around video art. But she soon realized that that was not her passion. Hong explains, "I find that modern art is very difficult for ordinary people to understand. For me, it's a very elite art, and I have always been interested in reaching a broader audience." So from there, Hong started experimenting with film making and found her calling. Hong graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in 1987 with a Master of Arts in Communication Arts.
Except for the drama Here Now, Hong's major works are primarily documentaries. As the mother of a nine year old, Hong finds that documentaries are a better fit for her current lifestyle: "I just can't really do film writing for now." Besides, Hong sees great potential in the genre. "A good documentary can be more memorable than fiction," says the accomplished artist. "Nowaday, documentaries are so popular, and there are all kinds of way to tell the story. It can be very creative."
Numerous films by Hong center around Asian or Asian American women, such as Between the Lines: Asian American Women's Poetry and Through the Milky Way. Hong says, "Many of my subjects are Asian American women or their art. That's something I am interested in, and I find that I can [effectively] tell their story." Hong was especially interested in the subjects in Becoming an Actress in New York, her documentary following three Korean American actresses. "I knew being an actor is really hard, since I shoot films. And being an Asian American actor is even harder. These ladies are coming from top acting schools like NYU and Yale, but they still run into certain limitations in the industry."
Life as an independent filmmaker is not any easier. Hong has to juggle responsibilities such as writing, shooting, and one of the most difficult - fund raising. Normally, such roles would be filled by different people. But having made numerous independent films, Hong is used to wearing many hats. And often times, "you have to find some creative solutions as an independent," according to Hong. For example, it wasn't easy for Hong to set up interviews with celebrity Asian American actors regarding their views on Anna May Wong. So to reach BD Wong, "I asked someone who was going to the same party to deliver my letter to him," Hong recounts.
Anna May Wong, Credit: Eichberg Film Company
Hong also explains that being an independent filmmaker is very different from being a filmmaker in the Hollywood film industry. Although being an independent is not easy, the talented filmmaker acknowledges that being a woman in the mainstream film industry has its own challenges. "I didn't find that I had any disadvantage being an independent woman filmmaker. I think it's actually a plus." But in Hollywood, Hong still sees the hurdles that women have to go through, even today. For example, despite its celebrated 82 years of history, it wasn't until this past year's Academy Awards that a woman received the honor of winning Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow taking the Oscar for her film, The Hurt Locker).
Hong doesn't have anything immediate lined up as her next project yet, but she wants to do more regarding Anna May Wong. In Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, Hong actually had to exclude a lot of materials from her research to keep the documentary at a proper length. Therefore, Hong would be interested in making a fictional film based on Anna May Wong, where she would have the freedom to incorporate more about the character in a different genre.
For young independent filmmakers who are just starting out, Hong advises that they should keep a steady source of steady income, such as a part time job, as they pursue their passion. In addition, she suggests that they try their best while they are still young, because changing life conditions such as getting married or starting a family can very easily get in the way of a career as an independent filmmaker.
11/2010 UPDATE: Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words was recently featured at the Pusan Int'l Film. During the event, Hong was interviewed by Mathew Scott of AFP. You can read the interview here.
Please sign in to post a comment