Actor Brian Tee as Dr. Ethan Choi in NBC's 'Chicago Med'. (Photo credit: NBC)
According to studies, Asian Americans remain significantly underrepresented in American media, and when visible primarily relegated to flattened and stereotypical roles in support of a white lead’s personal journey.
It was therefore noteworthy when in 2015, Chicago Med — a spinoff of the popular Chicago Fire series situated in Dick Wolf’s Chicago universe — premiered with a multiracial cast of characters that included Korean American Dr. Ethan Choi (played by actor Brian Tee) as a series regular. Although it was possible to write Ethan Choi as stereotype — he is a doctor, after all — series writers chose instead to write a character that defied conventional stereotypes: Ethan Choi is presented as a principled military veteran and a National Guard reservist, and a dashing romantic love interest.
Chicago Med is airing its 100th episode this eveing, in a storyline that features Dr. Choi. To mark the occasion, I asked actor Brian Tee to reflect on his time playing Dr. Ethan Choi on Chicago Med.
I Am Another You is filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s follow up to the gripping Hooligan Sparrow, named after the rebel activist Le Haiyan who leads a group of protesters seeking justice for six elementary school girls sexually assaulted by their school principal. In that film, Wang embarked on a harrowing journey to film Le, and both were eventually were targeted by Chinese officials for Le’s feminist activism. The film concludes with Wang recording how she was forced to smuggle her raw footage out of China in order to produce Hooligan Sparrow.
This time, however, Wang doesn’t become an enemy of the state while filming I Am Another You. Instead, she finds herself living on the streets with a free spirit named Dylan who has chosen a life as a drifter. I Am Another You makes us rethink social issues such as homelessness and mental illness, as well as what personal freedom feels and looks like. Wang’s storytelling compels us to think about our lives, through Dylan’s as he lives on the street.
Winner of the SXSW LUNA Chicken & Egg Award for Best Documentary Feature directed by a woman and the SXSW Special Jury Award for Excellence in Documentary Storytelling for I Am Another You, Wang was recently named one of Variety’s 2017’s Ten Documakers to Watch. I Am Another You is currently streaming on Independent Lens on PBS until February 15th. Watch it here.
Wang took time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her passion for documentary filmmaking and I Am Another You.
Kristina Wong (@mskristinawong) has dedicated her life to holding up a mirror to Asian America’s politics, pride and foibles through her work as our community’s foremost contemporary performance artist. Wong has influenced generations of Asian American activists with the range of her work tackling such weighty issues as mental health (in her one-woman show “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“) and celebrity obsession (in her ongoing performance piece wherein she appears at public events with hopes of marrying Jeremy Lin).
As someone who tries and fails to be even a fraction as funny as Kristina, I’m always in awe of her work, which is simultaneously hilarious and deeply thought-provoking. I had a chance last week to interview Kristina and learn a little bit about what it takes to “act up” and “act out” from one of my long-standing Asian American feminist sheroes.
When’s the wedding to Jeremy Lin and am I invited?
It takes money to marry money. And sadly: Right now, I have not been able to raise the money to get his attention.
Last summer, I tried to raise $5400 on Kickstarter for courtside tickets where I’d show up in a wedding dress, and he would propose on the spot (because how could he resist?). I came up $394 short after a grueling month of cyber beggary and still have no wedding date.
To help us get to know the folks behind the much-anticipated web series, Andrew and Melanie agreed to answer five questions:
1.What’s the story of how you were inspired to make MILLIONS?
Andrew: I wrote the pilot for the show when I was attending film school and I was questioning whether I was taking the right path. Previously, I graduated from Business School with a Business Degree, and worked for a bank for a couple of years. I hated it because it was so creatively stifling. I reached a point where I knew I had to pursue my passion for film just for my own sanity. So I decided to take the leap and applied for film school. I was accepted, but right before the term started, I was offered a high-paying job, which I turned down. Whenever things got tough in film school, I kept asking myself whether I had made the right decision because of what I had given up to pursue film. I understood that I had essentially stunted my life financially. As a result, I wrote a show about money, and how the obsessive need, or even want for it, can pull us in detrimental directions in our lives.
2. Do you envision MILLIONS being a finite story arc and have you mapped it all out already?
Andrew: I do envision MILLIONS as a finite story, much like The Sopranos. I have a general idea of where all the characters are going to go. I mapped out the first season of the show when it was originally conceived as an hour-long program. But now that we’re adapting it as a Web Series, I probably have a general idea of at least three seasons of the Web Series.
3. You guys are brother and sister, and seem to have a great rapport with each other in the opening scenes for the Mixtape, and it seems like you’ve been working together on Jaded Publishing/Jaded Media for awhile. As siblings, do you find it more or less challenging to work with each other?
Andrew: It’s definitely more challenging. And I think we can both agree on that. In a way, we’re too honest with one another, and we’re definitely not easy on each other. We’ve worked together on almost all of our artistic endeavours, and I don’t think it ever gets easier. But I think we still bring the best out of each other artistically.
Melanie: There’s always a challenge working with anyone in a creative capacity whether they be your family or not. But there are definitely more unique challenges when it comes to working with your sibling. We end up being brutally honest with one another without ever sugarcoating our words. Sometimes we can step on each others toes like that. And knowing each others personalities so well often challenges us more (imagine children when they try to push each others buttons for the hell of it). But at the end of the day we know we’re just trying to stir up the best out of each and we leave work with work and family with family.
4. There are several characters in MILLIONS, each embodying a particular archetype (e.g. The Brain, The Cynic, etc.) – reminiscent both of a comic book superhero team and a high school clique. What’s the one-word you would use to describe your sibling’s archetype and why?
Andrew: Hah! That’s a tough question! Melanie would be… damn, this is hard. She would be The Tough One? That’s not really one word, but it’s really difficult summing up someone you know so well in just one word!
Melanie: I’m the Tough One? Hmm that’s interesting to me…I thought you would call me ‘The Neurotic One’ haha. Andrew would probably be ‘The BS Detector,’ or in the words of Ken Jeong’s character in Community ‘The Racist Exposer’ yeah I kinda like that one haha!
Jenn: That should totally be a comic-book duo: Racist Exposer and The Neurotic One!
5. As Asian Canadians (and for Melanie, as an Asian Canadian woman), are there particular challenges, or triumphs, that you find as filmmakers coming from your particular backgrounds? Do you feel inspired, or compelled, to tell uniquely Asian American stories?
Andrew: What a loaded question!
Jenn: Ha! Well, I was hoping to just give you guys the freedom to interpret the question as you wanted and to write your thoughts and reflections…
Andrew: I’m going to try to be brief here. Yes, it’s a challenge. You definitely have to be better than your average filmmaker to be afforded with opportunities. But I never use it as a crutch or an excuse. Because as an artist you want to be better anyways, so I look at it as a blessing in disguise. And the fact that today, outlets like YouTube allow anyone to have their work seen, has made the film industry more democratic than ever before. Gatekeepers are dying. It doesn’t matter anymore what race you are or where your from. If your work is good, it will be successful. Period.
Melanie: As an Asian-Canadian Female in this industry I have definitely found there to be challenges. As soon as I entered the film world, in many ways I felt like the outsider looking in. A third of my class in film school were women, about 11% of my class were visible minorities, and about 6% were both. These number are beyond sad having graduated not too long ago, as well as coming from one of the largest schools in the whole of Canada, and to top it off, attending a school in the most “diverse” city in the nation. If you were to lay those facts out its pretty scary to feel like the smallest fish in an ocean. I have an endless list of stories of where I’ve been snubbed and overlooked for being either a female, a minority, and/or both, and sadly, I know I will have more to come.
The biggest challenge I’ve always felt was a lack of community among Asian-Canadian Females in this industry. My naivete always takes over when I meet someone “like me” in the film world. There’s a part of me that hopes they’ll say “yeah let’s stand together!” and want to support the small community of Asian Females. But I honestly can’t say that I’ve met anyone with that same mentality. Its almost as if we know we’re nearly a non-existent breed in this world and we’re all doing our best to keep ourselves afloat. Or worse yet ‘blend in’ and hope that no one has seen our stripes. It definitely hardens you.
Without doubt its difficult to be both a female and a minority doing what I’m doing. Every single day I work, I work hard to gain respect versus a man who often commands respect as a result of his sex. It gets exhaustive, because then it becomes that much harder to find the people that truly support and respect your work and to find a circle of people who’s criticisms you can trust, over those that are trying to bully you. And simply, its often an uphill battle just to be seen. So in a way, I can understand why women of Asian descent often become so rigid in their need to hold onto their own position and not be inclusive. Its taken a lot of hard work to get where you are so you don’t want anyone else to take that away from you. But its a double edged sword where we end up chasing our own tail. We’ll never grow as a community because all we end up doing is scaring off the next generation. And then we’ll never be seen. We’ll never be respected as a community if we don’t respect ourselves.
Andrew: I don’t think I’ve ever felt compelled to tell a uniquely “Asian-American” story. Mostly because I think an Asian-Canadian story isn’t much different. Our experiences are pretty similar, I think. As human beings we go through the same things. And as for the “Asian” aspect, I don’t ever write about being Asian anyway. I only write stories with Asians in them.
And as for the “Asian” aspect, I don’t ever write about being Asian anyway. I only write stories with Asians in them. I think if there is a difference between Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans, the most significant one is the same difference between Canadians and Americans. Canadians tend to be ultra polite and try not to cause a stir. This is funny though, because Asians in general already have that stereotype, which there is some truth to. So as Canadians, those traits are even more exaggerated when you’re Asian. Thus, I’ve noticed over time that Asian-Americans definitely have a stronger “Asian” movement in media than here in Canada. The one statistic I always love to throw out to other Canadians is that Asians are the largest visible minority in Canada, while in the States it’s African-Americans. Yet, we probably see less Asians on Canadian TV than on American TV. We even see more African-Canadians on TV because it’s easier to sell to the States. It’s a sad fact really. I attribute it to the “Canadian-ness” of Asian-Canadians. Asian-Americans are definitely more militant in getting their faces on TV, the movies and all of media.
Melanie: My goal has always been to create more exposure for us in the media and in a responsible way. We’re not all kung fu experts/mathematicians/lispy comedians who pronounce our r’s like l’s and our l’s like r’s. That’s irresponsible.
My desire has always been to put us on screen where Asians simply exist – live and breathe air the same as anyone else would. And this is where the balancing act comes in – at the same time we don’t exist to become a wallflower. And I think that’s the challenge that all Asian American/Canadian filmmakers are facing. We need to put ourselves on screen in a responsible way, but at the same time we don’t want to put our entire focus on just our culture.
Can I relate to The Joy Luck Club? In some ways yes. Can I also relate to Better Luck Tomorrow? Definitely yes. One is more culturally focused and the other is more like the stories I want to tell – a story that ascends race. But yet, both films are categorized as an “Asian film.” So the question then becomes how do we merge the two without it becoming an “Asian film?” There is a real power in putting those two words together – it suddenly becomes exclusive to non-Asians in relatability. We need to break this idea that a film has a cultural center based on the race of the cast. I’m sure the movie 21 would have fallen into the “Asian film” category if Sony cast true to the story. So what was the solution? Cast an (almost) all white cast. And suddenly its a “film” and not an “Asian film.” Same can be said about Tyler Perry’s films. They get deemed as “Black films” because the cast is black. When in fact they’re stories about the human experience. And my goal is to tell above and beyond human stories. With Asian faces.
Andrew: Thanks! Knowing how much I love zombies, that’s a great idea! But I have to say, it probably wouldn’t make too much sense in their world! But hey, as a blooper, maybe I’ll play a prank on the set and have a zombie just walk in on a scene?
Jenn: I vote yes on zombies in a MILLIONS blooper reel!!
Melanie: I like zombies 😀
Jenn: Mmmm, brrrraaaainnnzzzz…
Thanks to both of you for taking the time out to answer these questions! Great luck on MILLIONS and keep us posted with updates!