Having recently premiered at SXSW, Seeking Asian Female came into the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival this weekend with great fanfare, enjoyed two sold-out screenings, and inspired robust Q&As. Seeking Asian Female is the first feature from documentarian Debbie Lum, who wanted to explore the lives of American men with so-called “Yellow Fever” – a preference for Asian women. Seeking Asian Female follows Steven, a 60-year-old garage attendant from a suburb of San Francisco, his fiancée Sandy, a 30-year-old Chinese woman who comes to America to marry Steven, and Lum herself, as she finds herself being forced to become the couple’s translator and marriage counselor. I sat down with Lum at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in the hours leading up to the film’s showing. Here’s what Lum shared with me about her inspiration to explore “Yellow Fever,” how her relationship with her subjects evolved over the course of filming, and crafting Seeking Asian Female.
Jackson Truax: As an Asian-America woman and as a filmmaker, why was it important for you to explore men with so-called “Yellow Fever?”
Debbie Lum: As an Asian-American woman, and also a filmmaker, it’s almost like an imperative… I’m met so many friends and colleagues who are [Asian] filmmakers…that have told me, “I was going to make that film.” You can’t avoid it. If you grow up in America, if you’re an Asian woman, you’re going to meet countless men who have a fixation [with] Asian women. It’s not something that people really spend the time to think about.
JT: I know you put out an open casting call looking for men with “Yellow Fever.” Was that how you met Steven?
DL: I met Steven early on in the process of interviewing all these different men with “Yellow Fever.” I was originally following a number of them, about four or five of them, to see whether or not any of them would actually find the Asian woman they were looking for. But Steven always stood out. He was such a quirky person. Like I said in the film, he was the documentary filmmaker’s dream come true… He just gave me total access.
JT: In, shooting and editing the movie, was it hard to remain objective? Or do you think as a filmmaker you imposed your view of these subjects onto the film?
DL: I think when you make a documentary, it’s actually really hard not to editorialize. You’re taught as a documentary filmmaker to be objective and to let the story speak for itself. But at the same time, when I was crafting this, I actually wanted the audience to be able to go with the story. They’re not easy characters. When you meet someone like Steven and someone like Sandy, you immediately have a lot of judgments and they maybe seem foreign to you. I wanted to really capture the journey that I went on, as I got to know them, so that the audience could actually go on that same journey.
JT: You were in a unique position as a documentarian, of being called to enter the lives of your subjects in a very intimate way. Was it a hard decision, first to be willing to do that, and then navigate how far it could go?
DL: You’re in the spur of the moment when you’re shooting a documentary. You have no control over what’s going to happen. The minute she walked off the plane, it suddenly occurred to me, “Oh my God. They can’t communicate with each other. But I can.” Then they started drawing me into the film… I never wanted to be in the film. I thought I was going to make an expose about “Yellow Fever” and he was the subject of my documentary. I never thought I would become the subject of my own film.
JT: When you were in the process of filming the movie and spending time with the subjects, what did you see, or hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
DL: I was surprised every step along the way… Sandy was not the person that I went into it thinking that she would be. She comes across in the beginning as somebody who’s almost the stereotype, the traditional, domestic, sweet, young Asian woman. Then you find out that she’s a total firecracker. And don’t mess with her. Then I was really surprised that someone who’s 60-years-old, who had been obsessed with Asian women for ten years, and never been a real relationship with one, when he had to face reality, could actually change. That’s kind of an amazing thing to see an individual do over the course of not a very long period of time. Most people…don’t change. And he could.
JT: When you met and starting filming Steven, did you think he would actually get an Asian woman to want to move to America to marry him?
DL: Steven, over the course of time, although he may have appeared creepy at the beginning, he became a very endearing character and a very endearing person to me. But, I definitely thought, “There’s no way that he’s going to find an Asian woman.” I also felt like, he wasn’t looking for an Asian woman. Actually, he was just looking. He actually really enjoyed just searching. That was the point of it all… When he found Sandy, I was totally surprised.
JT: You’ve had a lot of experience as an editor prior to making your first film. How did your history of working as an editor inform your crafting of Seeking Asian Female?
DL: In many ways, being an editor maybe made the shooting more difficult. Because I knew that the film would be made in the editing room. I probably overshot the whole thing. But we really did create the story in the editing room… We shot over 200 hours of footage… I started living with them, practically in the very beginning of their relationship. It was so dynamic. There were so many things that were happening all the time. It was hard not to shoot. I think a more experienced cameraperson knows when to stop.
JT: The film has an 80-minute running time. How did you begin to pare down 200 hours of footage?
DL: I’ve always edited long-form documentaries. They seem to always begin at a minimum of 100 hours. So it is really challenging… You start with a fifteen-hour cut. Then it gets down to three… It’s a long, laborious process… As an editor, I think it was easy to see where the story was, in terms of Steven and Sandy. But once I put myself into the film, it made it far [trickier] to see where the storyline was. I actually worked with two other editors to help me get perspective on my own character in the film.
JT: Did you ever try and remove yourself from the final cut of the film?
DL: We went through different iterations. We went though a pass where I was far less of a character, and [one where I was] more of a character. We came to a happy medium. We did find out that the story really needed to have a narrator. That was ultimately why I was in the film.
JT: One of the things that’s interesting about Steven is that he’s 60-years-old, and getting ready for his third marriage and wedding. He doesn’t have any money, so his brother gives him $20,000 for the wedding. His brother really isn’t in the film, but did you ever interview him to get a sense of what made him want to do that?
DL: We have hours and hours of footage about the wedding, and with his family and with his brother. Everyone in his family really loves Steven and was rooting for him, even though they all kind of knew that it was a crazy idea, to go about marriage in this kind of way. But they still loved him anyway.
JT: The film mentions that at 60-years-old, Steven is a garage attendant and in his second or third career. How did he end up in that position?
DL: Steven’s an ex-hippie. So I think he’s from the generation where you just live in the moment. He was an art student. Then he became a jewelry salesman. Eventually, he wound up in this job that he always…felt was not his real job…one day he would get another job. But as you get older, your choices become more limited.
JT: How recently were you shooting the footage that’s in the film?
DL: We stopped filming about two years ago… I still see Steven and Sandy on a regular basis. I would say that their relationship has actually gotten more and more stable everyday.
JT: Seeking Asian Female had its world premiere at South by Southwest. What was experience of showing the film there, and what was the reaction?
DL: South by Southwest is an incredible festival. It was a really crazy and wonderful experience… They have huge crowds, They’re all cinephiles. They came out and they really loved it. It’s really fun to watch the film with an audience. Because…it’s just non-stop laughter.
JT: Beyond the screening tonight and tomorrow, do you know what opportunities audiences will have to seek out Seeking Asian Female?
DL: Yes, actually. We’re going to be in more festivals…across the country. We are eventually slated to be broadcast on PBS, on the series “Independent Lens.” But that’s not until 2013. So that’s about a year out. In the meantime…we are launching a Kickstarter campaign today. We’re actually still trying to raise some finishing funds to get the film out there and get down to our broadcast cut. If you want a chance to see it without waiting for the broadcast or waiting for it to come to a festival near you, then you can go to our Kickstarter campaign. There [are] ways in which you can see it by joining.
JT: If Seeking Asian Female gets widely seen, what’s the impact you hope the film have, or the discussion you hope it might inspire, either among audiences who see it, or American culture on a broader scale?
DL: The film is a conversation starter about so many issues. One of them is definitely about the role that race plays in relationships and interracial relationships. Another one is about the stereotypes that we have about Asian women, and Asian-American women. It’s also about marriage, and what it really takes to be in a relationship and to make that work.
Filed under: LiC Interview