This month on Cinema Asian America, on XFINITY On Demand, be sure to catch Michael Kang’s touching coming-of-age comedy-drama “The Motel,” starring Sung Kang (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift“). A hit on the film festival circuit (including Sundance), “The Motel” tells the story of a Chinese-American teenager, living in rural New York in a run-down, sleezy motel with his family, trying to make sense of his hormones and the world around him. Kang’s first feature film is an accomplished, heart-warming tale and a ground-breaking American independent film.
“The Motel” tells the story of a chubby Chinese-American kid living with his family in a run-down motel, going through puberty and trying to work out who exactly he is and what he wants out of life. What inspired you to make this film?
Kang: The main inspiration came from my own terrible experience going through puberty. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of Asian-American role models to look to. When I started writing “The Motel,” I asked myself what kind of role model I could serve as and the conclusion I came up with was that I have no wisdom to pass on to the younger generation – and that is where the character of Sam Kim (played by Sung Kang) was born. Today, there are much more positive images of Asian-Americans out there on TV and in movies (though we still have a ways to go on this front), but I think it might be a bit easier to navigate as an Asian-American these days. Or maybe I finally have finished going through puberty and things don’t seem quite so bad anymore.
The film’s cast includes several seasoned actors such as Sung Kang but also has a number of young, non-professional actors such as your lead, Jeffrey Chyau. Did you find yourself working with your cast in very different ways to get the types of performances you were looking for?
Kang: Working with kids is totally different than with adults. Kids in general are better actors naturally. They act every day on the school yard or with their friends on the drop of a dime. Adults have learned lots of tricks to try and get back to that state of childlike abandon. The key to getting the right performance out of kids is to get them to trust you as a friend first and secondly never talk down to them. Most of our rehearsals were spent just playing and doing silly things. We would go to hip hop dance classes and go play laser tag. After Jeffrey and I created the bond as friends, the acting part was easy. With the adult actors, I just had to cast the right people who would help create that atmosphere of trust. The first day Sung met Jeffrey, I sent them to the amusement park together.
“The Motel” was your first feature film and did exceptionally well; it made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, screened around the world, and was released in theaters in the U.S. This seems like a dream come true for an independent filmmaker. How did this experience shape the filmmaker you are now?
Kang: It has been a downhill spiral ever since. Just kidding. When I was writing “The Motel,” I never thought it would be embraced by anyone outside of maybe the Asian-American community. Having the film play at Sundance and have a life beyond that validated that our stories as Asian-Americans can have universal appeal without forsaking our unique cultural perspective. It’s given me more confidence in fighting to get the films I want to see get made.
You were part of a wave of pioneering filmmakers who really put Asian-American filmmaking on the map in the early 2000s, with your short films, “The Motel,” and your subsequent film “West 32nd,” which stars John Cho and Grace Park. Why is it important for you to tell the kinds of stories you do?
Kang: As I said, I think there is a way to convey a universal story without sacrificing your voice. Films take a long-ass time to make and for me, if I am going to put that much time and energy into something, it really has to be about something I care about. I wouldn’t say that I only care about Asian-American stories, but more often than not there is some component to the Asian-American perspective that attracts me to projects.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Kang: Currently, I’ve been working on some branded entertainment for Ikea – a web series called “Easy To Assemble” which stars Illeana Douglas and has some really crazy cameos including Fred Willard, Patricia Heaton and Corey Feldman to name a few. The new season should air sometime in 2011 at http://www.easytoassembleseries.com. I’m also finishing up my latest feature which was the first movie I directed that I didn’t write. The movie is called “Tying The Knot” and it is a comedy about a dysfunctional family business of wedding planners in Hawaii. It was written by and stars Kimberly-Rose Wolter who also wrote and starred in the independent film “Tre” (directed by Eric Byler). It was a great experience because I also got to work with Sung Kang again in a much lighter role as the main love interest. That should be done this year as well. Other than that, I’ve got a few projects I’m trying to get going and I’ve always got my eye open for fun projects to get involved with.