If I were to think back to my first days of high school film class, I would have answered the question, "Who is your favorite filmmaker?" with 봉준호 (Bong Joon-ho) because, as a Korean-Chinese-American girl who loved cinema in 2020, his Oscar wins were miraculous. My knowledge of cinema was strictly American Hollywood, and I had yet to discover and branch out to films that came from the indie filmmakers in China who had just graduated film school around the time the Cultural Revolution ended. These, and many others that came about at that time in East Asia, were the movies that unexpectedly shaped my affection for film arts.
My exploration began with the Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, who broke through during the second wave of Hong Kong cinema. His movies cover loneliness, heartbreak, and hopelessness through nonlinear storytelling. What set his movies apart from the ones I had seen growing up was not only the new, slightly unfamiliar level of artistic choices but also the cultural differences that appeared in every shot. Wong Kar Wai's films illustrate this very well. Viewers are swallowed in the neon, dreamlike worlds that take place in the urban cities of China. It is a look that is distinct to its era and drew me in like no other genre could. My favorite movie of all time, Chungking Express (1994), was Kar-Wai's most famous stylistic masterpiece that, with the help of Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, perfected a step-printing camerawork style that is beloved to this day.
Upon deepening my knowledge of Wong Kar Wai, I was in my second year of high school when I decided to make an ode to his films, especially Chungking. I wanted to write a film that had the element of spontaneity and shoot it that way too. I was born and raised in San Francisco under firm parents—an American-Born-Chinese father who also grew up in San Francisco, and a Korean mother who immigrated from Seoul when she was 19. As a young girl, I never traveled outside of the city, let alone venture outside my district, which sits on the opposite side of downtown and Chinatown. Chinatown was where I decided to make this film I had been planning, during hours of night when the lanterns strung atop the streets glow, San Francisco's incandescent monuments, antique cable cars, and trains as its setting.
Shooting was a whirlwind of new experiences. My goal was to capture Wong Kar Wai's erratic storytelling and the drunk cinematography that came with it, but I ended up taking away something a bit different. I had the actors I had scouted speak Mandarin as was written in my script, though I did not speak a word of it. Because my mother was an immigrant, I could only speak Korean other than English. My father had a similar childhood to me, washed over by American culture and sometimes being able to order dim sum. What I had wished, as I had completed shooting and began to look over the footage in post-production, was a deeper connection to the Chinese side of me that I had neglected. The experience of making this film gave me that but in a pinch. There was still so much to this world that I had not yet discovered.
The ephemeral wave of Asian Indies is known as the Hong Kong New Wave of cinema, which spanned from the late 1970s to the 1990s. Cinema in East Asia was a growing phenomenon, where films that conformed to martial arts and gangster styles expanded and diversified to films that were more experimental, tranquil, political, and humane. The Blue Kite, directed by Tian ZhuangZhuang in 1993, was a controversial commentary on the communist government of China. It was later banned but was recognized for its courage and story of freedom.
Another notable wave of Asian Indie cinema was the Taiwanese New Wave, which spanned from the 1980s well into the 2000s. The films from this era were largely influenced by The French New Wave (1950s to 1960s) but had even more distinct elements that emerged from the moody black-and-white movies. This included more reliance on visual storytelling, with a lack of dialogue and greater emphasis on stylistic shots. Cinematography from the Taiwanese New Wave had long shots that were either stationary or tracking, some that could last twenty minutes. These were archetypal shots in Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang's films, which were often his obscure portrayals of modern life, ennui, and feeling displaced in a moving society. He is a filmmaker who praised the French New Wave in all means possible and even went so far as to adopt the French classic, The 400 Blows (1959), as a motif for his film What Time Is It There? (2001).
Asian Cinema has a rich history of eras and groundbreaking waves that allowed brilliant filmmaking to surface and make its way across the world. However, it is apparent that these generations of filmmaking have come to a soft close. There are very few films now like Edward Yang's YI YI (2000), a beautiful narrative on the sweetness and bitterness of life, or Lou Ye's Suzhou River (2000), an ethereal romance set in filthy landscapes of Shanghai. What makes a lot of these films special is the history they came with. Asian Indies came in a diamond age of cinema that is unique, and though I may lament its passing, it has opened new windows in my adolescent filmmaking career to appreciate the legacy and influence of these films and where they came from.