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Not that Kind of Asian Girl: An Interview with director Hyun Lee
By André Shannon
Hyun Lee is the latest young talent taking film for a spin. Her debut film is a horror short called ASIAN GIRLS, and it’s already landed Lee at this year’s SXSW and Sydney Film Festivals ahead of its screening as part of MIFF 2018’s WTF Shorts program. The film follows a Chinese factory worker – played by pop musician Rainbow Chan – haunted by nightmares of the Japanese office lady living next door to her.
2018 Critics Campus participant André Shannon caught up with Hyun to talk, filmmaker to filmmaker, about her reaction to reactions, why horror film isn’t her thing, and the dread of labels.
I'm really excited to jam with you and talk, filmmaker to filmmaker.
Lead the way.
You’re here at the Melbourne International Film Festival, because ASIAN GIRLS is screening in the shorts section.
It's in a program called the “WTF Shorts”, which I have recently found out stands for “weird” – I think the T might be for “terrifying”, or “terrific”, and F is “freaky”. Or it could just be "what the fuck".
ASIAN GIRLS is a bit scary.
To talk about ASIAN GIRLS, it is very WTF. I don't know if that's the best response that I want an audience to have when they watch my work. I don't really like labels or being associated with being an "art film". A lot of people watch it and feel confused ’cause there are a lot of symbols. And people come up and ask, "what does it mean?" and it's like, "It doesn't mean anything!" I mean, it does, but I don't want confusion to be the biggest response. It's not necessarily a bad response but...
Is there a label you want attached to the film?
I guess all labels make you squirm because they feel reductive or whatever. I want to make films that are entertaining, but also [that] work on many levels, as well as complex, and artistic, et cetera.
ASIAN GIRLS is about two women living these hyper-scary lives. Their day-to-day is somewhat nightmarish. Maybe your brand of entertainment is a bit freaky or sinister.
It's actually absolutely not! I don't even enjoy horror films that much. I'm not really a big lover of horror movies or thrillers. It's more a horror for reasons!
What are those reasons?
ASIAN GIRLS it is a short film and I am intending on developing it into a feature, and I feel like the Asian girls’ world is very much to do with the geopolitics of Asia and the cultural; particularly East Asia, Japan, China, their history, and to translate those tensions and horrors into a film. It's natural that it should be a horror film. I could try to make a diplomatic drama, but I think a horror movie is much more fun.
I definitely really enjoy ASIAN GIRLS, and if it's a window into a world you want to create it's really enticing. Is that something you think about, creating windows?
Let me think about that for a sec. I guess if it's like a window, are you outside staring in, or inside staring out? That's a very evocative question there André!
As a Korean-Australian director, when you make a film called ASIAN GIRLS, some people might interpret that as your way of conveying your world.
I like to think that it's looking outwards into the world as it is, rather than my experience as an Asian person. I was having this conversation with another fellow Korean Australian director just yesterday about how this friend of mine really identified as being Korean, whereas I really identify as being Asian, and maybe I don't like to talk about my experience in such a direct way, but I think the film is more about how I view Asia, and maybe how I view myself as being Asian rather than being this specific individual who is then Korean, then Asian. I see myself as backwards engineering that.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to show a rounded view of Asian girls?
Not at all! I know that [with] Girls Lena Dunham got criticism for calling her show “Girls” rather than “Girl”. She was “allegedly” representing all girls; her white girl or whatever. When people expect filmmakers to do that, try to make artists into politicians, and when you do that – turning an artist into a politician – then they're just making propaganda and I don't think that's right. Artists should definitely make political work and work that is politically involved but when you start having an ideology that you're trying to promote or enforce, it’s propaganda!
Let's end on something a bit lighter. ASIAN GIRLS is playing in midnight screenings around the world. Did you expect to show in a context that might be seen as "wild" or "outlandish"?
Yeah! Or did you just think you could slide into any line-up?
I honestly didn't realise how weird ASIAN GIRLS was until the cast and crew screening. And I had this sense of betrayal of "Why, in the nine months that it took for this film to be made, did no one tell me this is a really strange film?!". I was horrified! Why did nobody tell me! I think it's a good thing nobody told me. It is a weird film, and at the time it didn't occur to me that it was weird.
It's a beautiful small film and it's doing really well. Is there anything that you want to say about the film, in the back of your mind?
I hope people can see it, that's all!
That's all that matters.