Quentin Lee has been called a “Gaysian” filmmaker, representing two significant minorities in the industry. He both exemplifies and defies Asian stereotypes, impressively obtaining degrees from three top universities but then dedicating himself to the arts instead of the sciences. And through a series of defining moments — often coinciding with the first day of school — Lee has become a prolific writer-producer-director, with four of his films, old and new, coming to L.A. screens this month.
Born in Hong Kong in 1971, Lee knew, from the age of twelve, that he wanted to come to America and attend UCLA's film school, but it took a while to get there. He started making his first films with his parents' camera when he was thirteen. When his father realized that Lee was serious about pursuing the arts, his only major concern was that he didn't have the contacts to help Lee get a leg up in the industry — not the reaction one would expect from a culture that stereotypically pushes its children to become doctors, lawyers or businessmen.
At the time, Lee was just grappling with the issue of how to get to America in the first place. But when Lee was fifteen, the family moved to Montréal “because Hong Kong was turning over to China in 1997 and there was huge panic in the 80s,” he says. “Because, in the 80s, China was very Communist and repressive, so everybody in that generation [was] planning to immigrate to Australia, Canada or [the] U.S.”
On Lee's first day of high school in Canada, he was not given much time to adjust, as he was shuttled into a bus with the other private school students for a Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Connecticut. “I could barely speak English,” he says. “But in retrospect, I really appreciated that trip because I saw seven, eight Shakespeare plays [and] I have no idea what they were about. But then I went back and studied Hamlet…[and] Shakespeare became a really strong influence in terms of my academic studies.” Which was to be expected, as Lee went on to UC Berkeley as an English major, opting not to pursue film studies — a weaker program at the time. And there, he ended up taking a class from Janet Adelman, the leading scholar on Shakespeare and feminism.
But Shakespeare wasn't the only thing Lee learned at Berkeley. “Berkeley taught me how to fight…how to work the system within the system,” he says. By some fluke, possibly due to a late payment from his parents, Lee went to pick up his class schedule during freshman year (before the days of online course registrations) and saw that it was blank. This meant he had to crash every class. And Lee, discovering that all breadth-requirement courses gave graduating seniors priority, instead decided to take all the upper division courses first.
But Lee's proudest academic accomplishment at Berkeley was probably arguing all the way to the highest powers that be to get out of Subject A, a required English course series — a feat that has ultimately served as practice for Lee's present dealings in successful, independent filmmaking.
Like many people, Lee also really found his identity while in college. “When I came out, it was more about political activism,” he says. “You went to protests. We did all these things, and that's how I met all my friends in the beginning. My junior year I was very, very gay, because I just came out. My senior year, I became very Asian American.”
After graduating Berkeley, Lee didn't get into UCLA right away. It was only after completing his M.A. in English at Yale — no biggie — was Lee finally able to attend his dream school. Having been waitlisted, Lee found out he'd gotten in…on his first day at USC. He and another student ended up swapping places.
At UCLA he met Justin Lin — now the director of four of the Fast and Furious sequels — and they made their first feature, Flow, a non-autobiographical story that shows a gay, Asian filmmaker and a collection of shorts he makes.
“What's interesting about a person of color doing [the] arts — Asian-American or whatever — people think it's autobiography,” Lee says, “and Flow was trying to subvert that.”
To make the film, Lee borrowed equipment from UCLA under the guise of making his thesis project. Instead, Flow entered the festival circuit and garnered largely positive reviews. So when his professors asked to see his thesis project, Lee told them that he shot very personal footage of him and his ex-boyfriend having sex and wasn't completely comfortable showing it. And that was the end of that. “The best gift out of UCLA…was learning…that I could make a movie with my own hands from scratch,” he says. “And no one can stop you.”
Flow and Drift, another one of Lee's earlier works, will be part of the Outfest/UCLA Legacy Project Screening Series. Drift portrays the possible paths screenwriter Ryan's (played by Reggie Lee) relationship with his boyfriend of three years could take after he meets the younger Leo.
The two new projects from Lee, Chink (as producer) and White Frog (as director), are drastically different. The former is already stirring up controversy on Facebook with its inflammatory title. Lee stands by the choice.
“If you look at Django Unchained, there are a million 'niggers' in the movie. But the whole idea is, coming from a literary criticism background, you have to distinguish between using a word in a representation of means versus a word as a fighting word. And obviously, I've made all these Asian American movies. I'm definitely not throwing this thing out there just to piss people off.”
At one point, the title Model Minority was floated around, but Lily Mariye made a film of the same name, so it was back to Chink. And it is a better fit for this story of a self-hating Asian man who goes on a killing spree — his victims primarily Asians.
Meanwhile, White Frog is a sweeter, more mainstream film that explores a different aspect of Asian American life. It tells the tale of Nick (Booboo Stewart), a freshman with Asperger's, who is taken under the wings of his older brother Chaz's (Harry Shum Jr.) friends after his brother's death, and discovers that Chaz had been too afraid to come out so as to not disrupt his “perfect” family. It also stars more well-known actors, including BD Wong, Kelly Hu and Tyler Posey. In addition, the cast is composed of a variety of ethnicities, which Lee finds to be a more accurate portrayal of our reality.
Not surprisingly, one interview question Lee says he gets is: “Are you going to keep making gay films?” To which, Lee counters, “Do you consider Brokeback Mountain to be a gay film? … It just depends on how you look at the film… If a film doesn't cross over, they ghettoize you. 'Oh, it's that Asian American film. Or, 'It's that gay film.' But from a maker's point of view, I don't necessarily set out to make a gay story or an Asian American story even though there are Asian American characters in it. We just set out to make a good movie.”
And Lee's upcoming projects reflect this, as they have neither overtly Asian American or gay themes. There's Full Ride, “a multicultural homage to The Breakfast Club,” and Rigor Mortis, a “Silence of the Lambs meets Zombie” film that Lee originally developed for the Asian market but is now rewriting as an American horror film.
But in the meantime, you can catch Chink, White Frog, Flow and Drift throughout the month of May. Chink will be premiering at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival today, May 4, at 9:30 p.m. at the Directors Guild of America. White Frog will run at the TCL Chinese and Playhouse 7 starting May 10. And UCLA will host An Evening with Quentin Lee, showing Drift and Flow, at its Billy Wilder Theater on May 18 at 7:30 p.m.