Fashion designer Anna Sui talks with Mina Shum about her new film Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity
New York City, June 29, 2003
For Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity , Mina Shum's third feature, the award-winning filmmaker of Double Happiness returns to her hometownthe Cantonese-Canadian community of Vancouver. In this film about hope and possibility, newcomer Valerie Tian plays Mindy Ho, a Tao magic-obsessed twelve-year-old determined to change the fate of her single mother (Sandra Oh), an overworked and underpaid waitress at a local dim sum restaurant. Mindys dabbling with Taoist magic spells wreaks havoc: an aging man loses his job as a security guard, a butcher wins the lottery, and several romantic entanglements occur.
Backstage prior to the screening, AsianConnections' Lia Chang visited with Anna and Mina as they talked about being artists in the midst of Chinese family expectations.
Anna: I've been dying to interview you since I saw the first film of yours Double Happiness. I was very curious. How did you have the nerve to make a film like that. Did your parents see it? Being a Chinese woman to show those aspects of life that you showed in that film.
Mina: I think in a way it was the best therapy you could possibly have---- to make a film about it and publicize how difficult it is to have the courage to be your own person. When I first wanted to be a filmmaker, a 5'3" girl wanting to be a filmmaker, all I could hope for was someone else who felt like me who understood what it was like to please everyone and yet having your own personal agenda that conflicted with your parents. I wrote it in three days because I needed to purge. I'd moved out of my parents house, I'd done everything wrong, I'd finally talked my dad into recognizing me again. I just sat there and wrote the script. It took me four years to rewrite the script. I think for many reasons as a sort of catharsis, you sort of get it out. And then hearing audience members respond-other young women, other young Asian men come to me and go, "Oh my God!"
Anna: It's unheard of because none of us would ever do something directly against our parents beliefs. Yet you kind of like pulled the rug out from everybody and did it. And that was so amazing!
Mina: I aired all the dirty laundry.
Anna: You did. How did your parents react?
Mina: Well, my father wasn't pleased. He didn't really say much after the screening. My mother was very supportive and then the response to the film, "Well now the Shum name is up there on the big screen, well I have to forgive my daughter." Even with this new film Long Life , my father had trouble with it. But he's very proud of me being able to make a life for myself as a filmmaker. So, one night was so funny, he said, "I like the new film--more colors." And I said, "You're a real film critic dad. You better get over that."
Anna: That's so great because being a clothing designer, when I wanted to go to school to study clothing design, my parents said, "Why do you want to be a dressmaker?" And it wasn't until my first fashion show and then suddenly my father was better with the media than I was. He knew every single news reporter, he knew who was important and who wasn't, he knew it all. So it's incredible. They do come around. And I think maybe they're relieved a little bit too that it's out there.
Mina: Yes. I think they're happy. They still want me to get a full time job. You know the freelancing and the idea that you run your own business is just-how insecure can that be? They didn't want me to go to film school. From their background, I might a well be a prostitute.
Anna: So it was really autobiographical.
Mina: I call it semi-autobiographical. Cause you know those ten minute scenes where my father wouldn't talk to me, they became 30 second scenes where my father didn't talk to me. Cinema doesn't have room for that kind of real time truth. It's pretty banal at times. I say it's more truth than it is fact. I was getting the essence of what it was like to be alone. And I felt very isolated.
Anna: And did you actually have these relatives that helped bring about this liberation? For instance in this new film, Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity , there's the relatives visiting and suddenly their eyes are opened.
Mina: Yeah. Well with this film actually, it's more of a collage of things that happen to me as opposed to being semi-autobiographical. Because there are three stories in this. I think Mindy's journey, as a believer of Taoist magic is similar to my belief in art.
Anna: Because I also related to Mindy the most.
Mina: She's the dreamer, right and if she just made the right choices, did the right thing, made the right spell-she could solve the world's problems. She's twelve in the film and I specifically remember being twelve and picking up a journal for the first time and writing. I was very conscious of my critical self for the first time. That's partly why Mindy is the age she is. She is for the first time seeing the world and going, "I can engage."
Anna: That's so great. Just her determination, no matter what.
Mina: This film was sort of celebrating Mindy.
Anna: And the community aspect.
Mina: There weren't specific relatives, but there was always a strong community that I was a part of. Aunts that would watch you to see if you were married, or whether you were with a boy, the boy's type, to see if you are hanging out in the right places. There were always spies. When I made the film, 9/11 had just happened. The idea of how does one keep faith in this world. Why would you get up in the morning? Why don't we just go smoke pot on the beach for the rest of our lives? Why try to do anything at all? It was through Mindy's eyes that I tried to show the hope.
Anna: I just adored the film, through the whole thing, I was so excited, I didn't even blink. It was so great.
Mina: I'm really proud of it. It's one of those ones that I still, at any festival, if I don't have to doing something else, I'll sit through the whole thing. I like the characters. There's that mythical, magic quality. And where the film is shot is my backyard basically. And I live in that area. I just love seeing that area well lit. Cause I watch the sunset all the time from my house and I see the industrial waterfront. It's so poetic. It's such a symbol to me of how small we are and at the same time it's so beautiful that it exists at all. I just love to watch it. I've seen the film a million times.
Anna: It was something that I really wanted to ask you about ever since I saw Double Happiness because it was so courageous. When you are brought up in a Chinese household, you have so much awareness about what your family is going to think. How your family is going to reflect on it, and what image your family is going to project. And to go against that and to expose that as you did.
Mina: I let my family know very early on writing the script. My father never quite related it to his life until--well, my mother and father actually participated in a reading of that script, and still my father didn't get it. It wasn't until he saw it on the big screen-that he said, "Mina, come here. As long as they pronounce your name right."
Many of the filmmakers and actors whose films were screened during the festival partied the night away in the Garden Court Cafe of the Asia Society after the screening. In addition to presenting films by cutting edge media artists of the Asian diaspora, ACV and the Asian American Journalists Association-NY Chapter announced the BILL J. GEE AWARD for Excellence in Media Arts Journalism.
Awarded annually, this $500 prize will recognize excellence in writing by a professional journalist or critic that highlights the work of Asian Americans in the media arts. This award honors the memory of Bill Gee, journalist and former Executive Director of Asian CineVision, who passed away in March 2003. Gee was the founding editor of CineVue, the critical media arts journal published by ACV, and a founding member of the Asian American Journalists Association-New York Chapter. The first award will be presented at the 27th Asian American International Film Festival in 2004.
Asian CineVision, Inc. (ACV) is a not-for-profit national media arts organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Asian and Asian-American media expressions. ACV's programs and services include film exhibitions, mentoring and educational outreach, training workshops, publications, and a media archive. AsianConnections was delighted to be a Media sponsor for Asian Cinevision's 26th Asian American International Film Festival, the oldest film festival dedicated to nurturing and celebrating the creative vision and voices of filmmakers of the Asian Diaspora presented by the Asia Society and Cadillac.