Cinema Asian America: Jon Moritsugu on ‘Terminal USA’

by | July 6, 2011 at 5:27 PM | Cinema Asian America, Indie Film Club, Interviews

"Terminal USA" director Jon Moritsugu. This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand is featuring the VOD-premiere of Jon Moritsugu’s 1993 underground cult-classic, ‘Terminal USA.’ Originally produced for public television, it shocked and blew away audiences with its riotous deconstruction of a Japanese-American family. The New York Daily News described it as “Father Knows Best” meets “Pink Flamingos,” and called it “a post-punk soap opera about an Asian-American family that single-handedly shatters the clean-cut, hard-working image of the model minority.”

For good reason. The movie includes a morphine-junkie mom, a drug-dealing son, his skinhead-loving brother and their sex-crazed sister in this over-the-top satire that skewers wholesome sitcom families. Vengeful pom-pom girls, a pedophilic lawyer and a host of other unsavory characters pepper this transgressive masterpiece. Jon Moritsugu has won awards and acclaim world-wide for his influential underground, lo-fi, punk rock films, which include the classics “Hippy Pron” (1991) and “Scum Rock” (2003)





“Terminal USA” was a pretty transgressive film when it was made in 1993, and it holds up incredibly well, still pushing lots of buttons and complicating how we look at family, and in particular Asian-American families. Why did you choose to make a film that so explicitly critiqued race and identity politics? Up until “Terminal USA”, I was making movies about broad cultural themes like the commodification of rock-n-roll, the semiotics of the slacker intellectual subculture, our society’s worship of the teenager…I touched on race in “Mod Fuck Explosion” with my drugged-out Asian gang but never dug deep…never plunged into the abyss that I had/hid inside. I realized it was finally time to look into the mirror and address who and what I am, an Asian-American. When “Terminal USA” came out in 1993, the world was different. Being Asian meant being a “model minority” and it was saddled with stereotypes like aptitude in math, gardening, and the art of stir-fry. This was the only portrayal of Asians on TV and in movies and media that I knew. I was angry and I wanted to create a work that would kick down the saffron door, so to speak, and create more breathing room for all of the yellow brothers and sisters out there. The African-American movement was totally inspired by the radical blacksploitation flicks of the 70s (“Dolemite”, “Superfly”, “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song”, etc.), and this is what I wanted to do. So I created a work of yellowsploitaion that was ultra sarcastic and entertaining but also completely serious in addressing and deconstructing the stereotypes placed onto the “Asian” in America.

Get “Terminal USA” On Demand now.

Two of the film’s most interesting characters are the brothers, Marvin and Katsumi, who are both played by you. They are polar opposites: Marvin is a buttoned-up, straight-A student who secretly covets gay Nazi pornography, while Katsumi is a wastoid druggie. How did you come up with them? They are both actually me…minus the gay stuff! Prior to my punk-rock, on-the-edge life as a crazy artist, I was that straight-A, National Honor Society nerd. I was picked on, I was bullied, and then I had my freak-out in my junior year of high school and cut my hair weird, put on my freaky clothes, and sat in the back row of the class and told wise-ass jokes and felt my first taste of power. Ultimately, I think you’ve gotta make movies about stuff you’ve gone through, and I’ve definitely been both Marvin (repressed, unhappy, self-hating) and Kazumi (addicted to power, being coolL and dabbling in anything and everything shocking). The residue of the” Marvin Nerd” still followed me. For instance, as a challenge and an ‘I’ll show you’ to my Mom, I decided to take the GRE standardized exam (like SATs but for graduate school). I did no preparation whatsoever, got drunk Kazumi style the night before, and you know what? I completely aced the math sections and got double 800s (everything perfect). How Marvin…and how immature to do this to stick it to the parents. Perhaps it helped me breeze into Brown…perhaps not. But I did gain my Mom’s respect. So go figure, I guess I’m still a little like Marvin in the head though I may look more Kazumi. I’m a like a cushion-cut canary diamond…multi-faceted.

You come from a low-fi, punk rock style of filmmaking; your works range from underground 16mm short works, like the award-winning “Der Elvis,” to the acclaimed “Scum Rock,” which was made entirely on outmoded video equipment. Can you tell us a bit about the aesthetics of your filmmaking, and who some of the influences you draw from are? I’ve actually drawn a lot of aesthetic inspiration from the underground and punk music scenes. When I started filmmaking in the mid-80s, cinema seemed divided into Hollywood and experimental camps, and since I didn’t fit into either category, I gravitated more towards music as a formative artistic influence. The loud and shocking immediacy, the in-your-face energy of a hardcore punk show was what I wanted my films to look and sound like. Nothing subtle, everything designed for you to love or hate. This inspired all my early work and I still hold on to it. As far as “Scumrock,” this movie was initially budgeted at $1 million. My previous feature, “Fame Whore,” played worldwide, got tons of great press and was chosen as an Oscar contender (it was kicked out of the competition on a technicality because it screened in LA in 16mm instead of the requisite 35mm). I thought raising money for my next film wouldn’t be a problem… I was young and cocky. Financing though, was a HUGE problem.That’s when my partner-in-crime (and “Scumrock’s” director of photography, co-writer and my wife of 16 years), Amy Davis, convinced me that we could shoot it for $5,000 using a $300 consumer camcorder. We decided to embrace our situation and ended up using lots of outmoded equipment donated from all these cutting-edge high-tech companies in San Francisco. That sorta goes full circle back to punk rock and underground music… sometimes you have to recognize your limitations, your lack of funding, your lack of the so-called “proper equipment” and actually make all of this part of your aesthetic process. If you have a great story everything else is secondary. It was an exhausting shoot, six months every day and the two of us doing everything. But the limitations became the blessings. Ahh life… you live, you learn, you grow grasshopper.

What is exciting for you right now? What artists, musicians, thinkers, movements, ideas are expanding your mind creatively? Who is on top of it? As far as what’s turning me on creatively, it’s completely anti-avant-garde. I’ve been checking out lots of “classic cinema”… stuff like old screwballs, Bette Davis, Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe even Jayne Mansfield movies. Great cinematography and amazing effects for that time. I totally love the strong writing of yesteryear… the lack of pretense, the ability to develop realistic characters and their motivations, and to ultimately tell a story with good development and a great ending. I also dig that there seemed to be more husband/wife writing teams or solo writers back then (instead of committees). This type of singular vision created movies that were relatable and stand the test of time to this day. Check “Adam’s Rib” for instance. On the music tip, I really dig the band TV On the Radio and I’m totally getting into classical music. I’m still listening to the weird corrosive stuff but there’s nothing like softly banging your head to a Beethoven piano concerto. Yeah, Claudio Arrau’s my homeboy. Plus my fave band is LOW ON HIGH….yeah shameless plug.

What are you working on now? How can we watch more of your films? Here at Apathy Productions, we’re in post-production for the feature “Pig Death Machine”. It’s about 75% edited and I cannot wait, since I haven’t put anything new out in about 10 years! It should be hitting the world in late fall/early winter. It’s a horror movie with lots of comedic aspects, not horror like blood and gore, but more on the psychological tip. It was shot by the infamous Todd Verow out here in the deserts of New Mexico in blistering candy color. The film is about envy and what happens when you get what you wish for…sort of a “Freaky Friday” with lots of rotten meat. The trailer for “Pig Death Machine” can be seen (here).

As far as checking out my movies (I’ve got five other features besides “Terminal USA”), the best place to go is: www.jonmoritsugu.com. Lots of info, clips, links, plus awesome DVD store. My flicks are available in many mainstream places, but go to my site first – there’s no middleman involved and the money will go directly into….ME MAKING MORE CRAZY MOVIES! Plus if you buy direct, I’ll pop in a glow-in-the-dark button…NO JOKE.