07 May FILMMAKER FEATURE: MICHAEL KANG OF THE MOTEL
“Hi. Did you order the Mongolian Beef?”
He’s a maker of short films, a writer of screenplays, a creator of the screenwriters group Rashomon, but Michael Kang’s most visible role to date is playing the virile, sexually-empowered delivery dude for director Greg Pak’s spoof ASIAN PRIDE PORN (available exclusively on www.atomfilms.com)
“I had a blast in ASIAN PRIDE PORN. I actually forced Greg to cast me.”
“Most of the roles I have played have come from me twisting my friends’ arms. I don’t know if my family has seen [the film]; I never asked. Maybe I’ll bring it up next Thanksgiving.”
Opening the market for aspiring Asian Americans is actor/director/writer Michael Kang, whose live action shorts such as A WAITER TOMORROW and JAPANESE COWBOY have established him as a solid figure in the independent film circuit.
Kang’s latest project and first feature film, THE MOTEL won the Sundance/NHK award in 2003 and the 24th Annual Asian American International Film Festival Screenplay Competition for its impressive script. Currently in post production and ready to hit film festival later this year, THE MOTEL documents the coming-of-age of Ernest Chin, a pubescent teen growing up in the squalor of a New England motel owned by his parents.
Many elements of the story come largely from Kang’s own experience of growing up male and Asian American in Rhode Island.
“Most of the script came from my own awful sexual awakening and my own skewed vision of what it means to be a man, particularly an Asian American man.”
The story revolves around the teenaged Ernest, who, while helping his parents out with their motel business, meets Sam (played by BETTER LUCK TOMORROW’s Sung Kang), a “charismatic but self-destructive man” who decides to take the boy under his wing. As their relationship develops, Ernest, with Sam’s guidance, struggles to deal with the sexuality and the uncharted exploration of puberty.
“I wrote the Motel after reading a short story by Ed Lin [author of the critically acclaimed novel Waylaid, adapted from the same short story], and was inspired by the idea of exploring the worst place to go through puberty. A sleazy motel surrounded by sex seemed about the worst possible setting.”
Kang and Lin met during a stint in a performance troupe, where the former first read the idea behind Ed Lin’s short story. From there on, separately, Lin wrote the novel Waylaid, and Kang wrote the script THE MOTEL.
“I think writing is the most important part of filmmaking and most often the part that gets overlooked. Too often I have seen Asian American films that are great ideas, but then don’t deliver and aren’t able to get out of the distribution gate because the great idea isn’t fully thought out.”
As an Asian American filmmaker, Kang emphasizes the need to focus more closely on the script, where dialogue plays a pivotal role in carrying the film.
“That’s why I started teaching screenwriting workshops through the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in New York City. My hope is that in the future, people will have a place to go to fix problems with their films.”
As a writer, Kang finds it particularly irritating when a script-level error is committed, which could have been easily remedied.
“[The script] is the cheapest and easiest stage,” he says, but it is also the place where everything can go wrong.
The New York University graduate originally planned on becoming a playwright, but later changed his mind once he discovered screenwriting and moviemaking was not as banal as he presumed it to be. Kang eventually founded Rashomon, an Asian American screenwriters group that serves as base where screenwriters can evaluate and refine their work.
“I think filmmakers really need to know their own work,” Kang says, while finding it unfortunate when films are made before the creators are ready to make them.
“What I see often is a product made before it has matured, resulting cinema that’s detrimental to the Asian community.” He adds that most writers just have to be patient and eventually the film will find an appreciative audience.
As with most minority filmmakers, Kang met and observed some pitfalls and stumbling blocks for many directors.
“I guess the hardest thing has been to keep moving forward and trying to find the good side of everything. I have had to be mostly patient and steadfast.”
Kang was able to find backing for THE MOTEL exclusively through independent sources, so that he can be in creative control of his first feature.
“When you give a film to a studio, even one like Miramax, you lose power with the final cut and final casting.”
For now, Michael is currently in post-production with THE MOTEL, with THE GOOD GIRL’s Miguel Arteta, Matthew Greenfield and Gina Kwon as producers.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Miguel Arteta was that it is not just important to get financing but to get the right financing. Miguel made sure that I was protected in ways as a neophyte; I would never even think to ask for [like] final cut, final casting approval, no hard deadlines on release. It wasn’t an easy, nor quick process to get into this position. Patience has always been key for me.”
Kang has come away from making THE MOTEL, knowing that he will have very little control on how people react to his films. As of now, Kang has a couple of scripts in the works, including a script for Wayne Wang, director of CHAN IS MISSING and THE JOY LUCK CLUB.
“I just hope they react to it as a good story, and that [the film] does good for the Asian American community. The most important thing is to touch people emotionally.”
Diana was a writer for the San Diego Asian Film Foundation (now known as Pacific Arts Movement).