This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents New York-based filmmaker JP Chan’s festival-favorite trio of films, the “Three Uses of the Knife Trilogy.” Made available for free in collaboration with the Center for Asian American Media, these wildly different short films, “Take It Or Leave It? (2005),” “Dry Clean Only (2006)” and “I Don’t Sleep I Dream (2009)” are loosely tied together through the appearance of similar objects in each (a kitchen knife!) as well as Chan’s signature surrealistic humor.
In “Take It Or Leave It” a young woman prepares for a blind date – and all its possibilities, while in “Dry Clean Only,” a clerk at a dry cleaners is visited by a couple with a secret, leaving him with one of his own. In “I Don’t Sleep I Dream,” a woman discovers she can’t run from her fears without leaving a part of herself behind.
Chan, who is premiering his debut feature film “A Picture of You” at San Francisco’s CAAMFest this month spoke about these foundational works in his filmography.
Your “Three Uses of the Knife” trilogy of short films is available to view on Cinema Asian America for free this month – can you discuss the linkages between them, and how you conceived of them together, as they were made almost five years apart?
JPC: The trilogy grew organically. It wasn’t a trilogy until after I’d finished the second one (“Dry Clean Only”) and realized I’d just made two shorts that each involved a Chinese cleaver, themes of fear and secrets, and (of course) Asians.
Now if you’ve done two like that you gotta do three, right? So I tried to think of how the first two stories might be linked together and made the third one in attempt to do that and also go a little beyond. For the third, I really tried to push myself in every direction. Hopefully, it shows.
What attracts you to the short film? The films in this trilogy are 4, 6 and 15 mins long – would you say it’s harder to be concise when making a short film?
JPC: I started in shorts for the same reason as everyone else: I didn’t know what I was doing and I wanted to learn fast and cheaply. Shorts are the way to do that. But now that I’m a little further along, I still like doing short-form work. Shorts force you to be really ruthless in the edit, which I think is one of the most important filmmaking skills to have.
I do think it’s harder to be concise in a short film. That’s part of the power of shorts. That’s also a big reason I have very mixed feelings about short films getting longer these days, at least on the festival circuit. On the one hand, it’s awesome that the costs of production have come down so much that doing a 25 or 40 minute short can be very affordable. On the other hand, a beginning filmmaker who has never done a really short short is also missing out on developing a vital skill.
There are elements of comedy, surrealism and the absurd one can find throughout your films, and often in the same film. What draws you to these approaches to storytelling, and where does your interest in combining genres together come from?
JPC: I guess I’m just trying to mirror what I find most interesting about life: the constant juxtaposition of all these crazy, diametrically-opposed things and experiences that we somehow are able to process and make sense of and laugh at. I don’t know how to make movies any other way.
You have a new feature film “A Picture of You” which is traveling on the film festival circuit right now. How would you describe this in relation to your short works, thematically and formally, and how can audiences find the film?
JPC: This is by far my most personal film, because it’s loosely based on my own experiences grieving over my mother’s death a few years back. But it shares a lot with my shorts in that it mixes genres, gets kinda weird, and (of course) features Asians in the lead roles.
What are you working on now?
JPC: We’re still in the early stages of rolling out “A Picture of You” to the world, so most of my 2014 is going to be devoted to getting the film out to as many people as we can. If I’m extremely lucky and the movie finds its momentum quickly, I may shoot my next feature later this year.