In an almost two-decade career in filmmaking, Los Angeles-based director Quentin Lee has made a more varied and diverse body of work than most filmmakers will in a lifetime. From werewolf coming-of-age dramas to sex-romps to teen hostage films to experimental video art, Lee’s adventurous brand of filmmaking knows no genre and category boundaries and has been celebrated at film festivals around the world.
This month XFINITY On Demand features one of his recent feature films, “Ethan Mao” in its Cinema Asian America collection. A tense, stylish, fever-dream-logic-driven teen drama, it tells the story of a young Asian American man who makes a series of drastic and life-changing decisions when his family learns he is gay and begins to unravel. Lee took a break from working on his latest film “White Frog” to answer a few questions about “Ethan Mao.”
“Ethan Mao” tells the story of a young, gay, Asian American man and the process of reconciling the many competing and self-destructive forces in his life. Can you tell us a bit of where this story came from? The story came right after my little sister Tabitha left home after an argument over a pet rabbit with my stepmother. The pet rabbit was symbolic of all the resentment over the years between Tabitha, my dad and my stepmom. I put myself in her shoes and imagined what it would be like if I had been 17 and gay. In the movie, the pet rabbit became the discovery of a gay porn magazine which was how many gay kids got outed to their parents from many stories I’ve heard.
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In many of your films, you’ve played with familiar movie genres, but in a way reconceived and updated them. Your most recent film “The People I’ve Slept With” is a take on the sex comedy, and with “Ethan Mao”, you’ve played with the hostage film and the family drama. Can you tell us a bit about how you think about and use genre? I started off making “experimental” videos which are closer to experimental video art. I’ve always loved playing with genres, well exemplified by my film “Shopping for Fangs”, and I’ve followed the footsteps of the likes of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma and Ken Russell, mostly “genre” filmmakers. “Ethan Mao” swam between a teenage romance, horror film, thriller and black comedy wrapped around by a drugged up-teenage dreaminess a la “The Cabinet of Dr. Kaligari”. I know it can be frustrating for some audience but I love that dreaminess or dream logic which is the essence of cinema and imagination. “Ethan Mao” is my most critically-unliked film, as a critic described it as a “trainwreck,” but I’m very proud of it. De Palma once said, “I don’t cater to the public. Why should I cater to the critics?” You should cater to the public if you’re making a $100 million film, but for a $200k film? I’m making personal cinema.
You were born in Hong Kong, grew up in Canada and are now based in Los Angeles, and in many ways, carry cinematic lineages from each of these places. Can you tell us about some of the films and filmmakers who have influenced your style? When I was growing up, I was watching a lot of American horror films and foreign art films in the 80s. I’ve leaned toward genres that are more imaginative like horror, fantasy and science fiction. I also loved foreign movies like Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” or Lasse Hallström’s “My Life as a Dog”. I also watched some Hong Kong blockbusters in the 80s and one of my favorites was John Woo’s “Plain Jane Came to Rescue”. But as a whole, I didn’t learn that much from Hong Kong films in the 80s or 90s as most of them were not very well-made. Wong Kar Wai’s films were an exception.
As a college freshman, I became interested in Asian cinema after watching Bernado Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” and Wong Kar Wai’s “Days of Being Wild”. I was mesmerized by how the two filmmakers portrayed Asia and Hong Kong so beautifully, stylishly and cinematically. So my wheels started turning. I also started watching French movies like François Truffaut’s “400 Blows”, Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants” and Claud Miller’s “La Petite Valeuse”.
My influences are all over the place and but my favorite filmmakers are Dario Argento, Pedro Almodovar, Bernado Bertolucci, Katherine Bigelow, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, David Lynch, Errol Morris, Gaspar Noé, Ken Russell, Brian De Palma, Lynn Ramsey, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, and Wong Kar Wai. By “favorite” I mean I’ll watch any film they make, although I’ve been terribly disappointed by Dario Argento’s last few films but I’ll keep watching him. Dracula 3D! I’m so watching it anyway.
What are you working on now? I’m on post-production for my latest feature “White Frog”, a young adult drama about a kid with Aspergers. It stars Booboo Stewart, BD Wong, Harry Shum Jr., Gregg Sulkin, Tyler Posey, and Joan Chen. I’m really excited about it and it should come out next year. I also just premiered a 6-min. short film “Today Has Been Weird” that I made for USD $500 for the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and it’s now on Youtube.