Christine Choy: a Role Model for Aspiring Korean American Filmmakers

By Kay Kim ’96

 

THE PERVERSION AND THE DIAGNOSIS

I’m often struck by the perversity of modern life. Strange as it may seem, when I watch the evening news, I sometimes get choked up when the camera pans over massacred bodies or when a reporter detachedly interviews a frantic disaster victim. But, as I was wont to do as a child when a late night horror film got too harrowing, I turn the TV off or fold the newspaper, and the demons are vanquished. Indeed, I have done the rational thing—to be caught up in a river of another’s travails will surely lead to a therapist’s office. The fact that in modern society, people cannot afford to be intensely torn or disturbed by what are inherently disturbing events can be seen as a form of societal progress, for the ability to carry on amidst sorrow is the key to survival. What modern man trades in return, however, is a sustained understanding of the nature of these human experiences and the depth of emotion involved. Yet, there is a refuge of sorts. Film documentarians take these thirty-second soundbites and create richly woven expositions on the very events that, with time, can only remain in our memories as hollow shells. Documentary films offer us real people in real settings, and most importantly, the opportunity to experience anew the same stifling, yet essential human emotions.

 

THE ROLE MODEL

In April 1992, I was angry and afraid. Seeing the aftermath of the LA riots in the media left me in an emotional jumble. But a year later, those feelings were only memories, and I was far-removed from the stomach-churning shame or sadness that had struck me before. But in the summer of 1993, I had the opportunity to see Sa-I-Gu (April 29—the day of the riots), a documentary about female Korean shop owners affected by the Riots. I remember crying during the film because in the faces of those women, I could see my own mother or aunt, and even myself. Their experiences were close to my own, for what the LA Riots seemed to represent to them was the difficulty of the immigrant experience. As a mere second-generation Korean, I still understand these emotions.

At the time, all I knew about the film was that it was produced and directed by Christine Choy. I didn’t realize that Christine Choy was the same director who won an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1988 for Who Killed Vincent Chin? Nor did I know that she was a professor at the prestigious New York University Graduate School of Film.

In April 1995, Christine Choy came to the Korean American Students Conference at Harvard. I went to all her sessions, hoping to hear her views on filmmaking and hoping for a chance to speak to her personally about my concerns. I suppose I was also motivated by the fact that here was a chance for me to meet an Asian American filmmaker who had succeeded in an industry in which there are very few Asian American role models. Judging from the attendance at her seminars and workshop, I wasn’t the only one who was impressed by Christine Choy’s unique position in the community.

Christine Choy is one of the premier Asian American filmmakers in many ways. She has an impressive body of work, including Who Killed Vincent Chin, Homes Apart: The Two Koreas (1991), Out in Silence (1994), and most recently, In the Name of the Emperor (1994). She was also recently appointed Chair of the NYU Department of Film and Television, which most will agree is the premier graduate film department in the U.S.

Through attending her workshops and sitting down with her for a brief interview, I got a slight glimpse of Christine Choy’s life.

 

CHRISTINE CHOY: HER CAREER

Upon first impression, Christine Choy comes off as an energetic, gutsy woman. She stated at the beginning of one of her workshops that she sets high goals for herself and pursues them. Certainly, Christine Choy has come a long way since she first came to America at the age of fourteen to attend high school in New York. Born in 1954, she did well throughout middle school, and in 1967, she scored the highest on a highly competitive international high school exam, which allowed her to study in the States. She would later go onto graduate from Princeton in urban planning.

Christine Choy admits she stumbled upon filmmaking quite accidentally. It wasn’t until she was going to architecture school at Washington University in St. Louis that she had any experience with film. This first experience was the production of an animated cartoon called "Dead Earth." In 1972, she joined Newsreel, a film workshop in New York City. Initially, the group was very much White-centered, and she was one of the few Asian women working there, but gradually, the organization became more diverse. In her early years in the film industry, Christine Choy says there were times she "lived on Campbell Soup and Saltines." Her experience as a struggling filmmaker taught her not only that being an Asian woman was difficult, but also that she could not count on the loyalty of others to get her through life. The logical decision was to educate herself in all aspects of the filmmaking process—from writing to shooting to editing. She also chose documentary filmmaking as her medium of choice because it gave her more freedom and ease. With documentaries, the filmmaker can pick up where she left off at any time, whereas feature filmmaking is much less flexible.

Christine Choy remained dedicated to Newsreel, and eventually became the founder of Third World Newsreel, a distributor of films that she describes as "those no one else wanted." Third World Newsreel collected foreign films, civil rights films, feminist films, and other community activist documentaries that were eventually in high demand. With proceeds from Third World Newsreel, she was able to live comfortably as a filmmaker. As the head of this organization, Christine Choy not only proved herself to be a resourceful filmmaker, but a great administrator as well.

In 1994, she was appointed Chair of NYU’s graduate film program. She says her appointment came as quite a surprise, since some very prominent film industry figures were up for the position. With her appointment, she became the first Asian chair of NYU’s Graduate Film School. Before her, there had been five chairs in three years—all White men.

 

HER OPINIONS

Christine Choy’s body of work gives one a clear indication that she is certainly a woman with strong opinions and a social agenda. During the interview, she stated that all films are political, for all films have an agenda. Recently, she produced and directed "Out in Silence," which received the prestigious Robert Bennan Award. The production of this documentary about an HIV-positive, gay Asian male allowed her to work closely with a subject that has rarely been examined. The issue of gay Asians, much less HIV-positive Asians, is one that filmmakers like Christine Choy seldom cast light on. In her latest film, "In the Name of the Emperor" which will soon be theatrically released in select cities, Christine Choy offers the audience a fifty-minute presentation on a subject that the Japanese government has long attempted to deny—the Nanjing Massacre and the use of Korean "comfort women" during World War II. In this carefully edited, enlightening work, she incorporates many themes: the miseducation of Japanese citizens about the truth of World War II, the exploitation of Koreans by the Japanese during the occupation of Korea, and the lessons of wartime atrocity.

When you ask her what she thinks of the status of Asians in the film industry today, she offers a mixed response. She admits that there are still no truly prominent Asians in Hollywood. She also admits that she can’t readily name a feature film that provides a truly positive portrayal of Asians. But, she has much to be optimistic about. Christine Choy believes that Asians have made progress in several ways. In the first place, the Asian image, while in no way rid of its negative stereotypes, has undoubtedly improved. In other words, she bluntly states, Asian women are no longer "sluts." She questions, however, the fact that all actors must be beautiful, and also states that filmmakers have yet to accurately capture the Asian woman. Asians move and speak differently from Caucasians, but unfortunately, the standard by which most filmmakers have been taught to direct or write their films has been the White actor or actress. Even a film like The Joy Luck Club, which she says she enjoyed, could have been better if the director had known how to properly direct the Asian actresses. Christine Choy also explains that writers are needed to write roles appropriate for Asian actors. As for rising stars like Margaret Cho, she has nothing but praise for them. In the interview, she enthusiastically supported Margaret Cho’s irreverent, loud, and in many ways non-stereotypically Asian acting, but when asked about the show "All American Girl," she commented that she had a problem with the portrayal of the family. The fact that the other family members, purporting to play Koreans, were in fact of different Asian ethnicities, seemed to indicate the show’s insensitivity to the special subtleties of each Asian ethnic group. Hollywood’s lack of sensitivity for Asians is an issue that Christine Choy finds to be one of its biggest problems.

She believes, however, that bad images of Asians are preferable to having no images at all. Regarding the censorship of images of a societal group from popular culture, she says, "Absence is genocide."

Christine Choy is only half Korean, and she confesses that as a youth, she felt more comfortable with non-Asians. When she first came to the U.S., she didn’t feel part of the Asian community, and felt more accepted by Whites. In fact, her ex-husband was a Jewish filmmaker. But, over the course of her career as a filmmaker, she has developed a stronger affinity with the Korean community. Especially after her 1986-87 visit to North Korea during which she shot Homes Apart, she realized her relation to the Korean community and the fact that she has a Korean constituency.

As a self-taught filmmaker who struggled to achieve her current success, Christine Choy is sympathetic to the young Asian filmmaker. Now, in her influential position at what is arguable America’s finest film school, she is in the position to help Asian filmmakers. She spoke about how the rate of Asian enrollment has steadily increased over the five years she has spent at NYU. Most Asian students are actually from Asia, and of these, most are Korean. Still, she hopes that Asian American enrollment figures will also increase.

 

ADVICE

Interestingly enough, when asked if she thought film school was necessary for an aspiring Asian American filmmaker, she advised, "Go to film school if you have the money." These days, getting into NYU film school is more competitive than getting into an Ivy League college. This year, from an applicant pool of 14,000, only 38 were accepted.

She has more important advice, however. Christine Choy submits that the most important criterion for an aspiring filmmaker of artist is to "have a life." She adds that coming up with original ideas is very difficult without life experience. Above all else, be original. Become a struggling artist if you have to, because from that experience comes creativity.

When it comes to being a role model, Christine Choy is dubious. She said to me before I sat down to talk to her that she wasn’t sure what sort of role model she was. But, for Christine Choy, those who would serve as role models for Asian American should be holistic—be both light and dark, good and bad. She describes a professor who influenced her and gave her the confidence to be who she is today, and says that he supported her and encouraged her and told her that her work was "brilliant." Perhaps, this type of role model is one that aspiring Asian American artists need. Aspiring Asian American filmmakers need a community that affirms them, even as they need examples of those, like Christine Choy, who prove that they can attain their goals.


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