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What's Wrong With Frank Chin? (2005)

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Produced and directed by Curtis Choy

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     "We'come a Chinatowng, Folks!"  We begin with Frank Chin in a university setting, reading from his play The Year Of The Dragon.  Actor George Takei continues the same character's lines, performing in the PBS/Theater in America series. Chin mocks a television broadcast of Flower Drum Song.  He sits on the floor writing at a small computer, using an unusual two-handed mouse technique as a TV and radio blare.  His writing style is discussed and critiqued by his contemporaries.  He reveals his aspirations to be an artist.  In 1969, he arrives at the birth of Ethnic Studies to teach and produce guerilla theater.  He begins the quest to discover other Asian American writers, culminating in the publication of the collection of AA writing, Aiiieeeee!  In 1972, he becomes the first Chinese American playwright to have two plays produced in New York.  He forms his own theater company in San Francisco, hoping to recreate Dublin's Abbey Theatre for a young Asian America. He is dismissed in a power struggle.  In his endlessly beeping car, Chin denies using the term "sell-out", and proceeds to insult the sell-outs. His uniquely theatrical wedding ceremony is punctuated with a retelling of the legend of The Iron Moonhunter.  Chin thanks the National Endowment for the Arts by lecturing them about race relations.  The first Asian American Writers Conference is held in 1975, a landmark event; Chin reads as a who's who of AA writers appears.  He takes on the falsification of texts as he lays into Maxine Kingston's popular novel with an intense exchange of letters.  She confesses her re-invention of the heroic tradition, and we see the actual original story of the woman warrior.  Kingston exacts her revenge by novelizing Chin into a monkey.  He teaches at UCLA, and chides the class for not being able to write.  The students are clearly afraid as he rants about Charlie Chan.  Back on the road, Chin explains why the Chinese hate Christians.  The transition to night finds us inside the D.H.Hwang Theater, where The Year of The Dragon is being performed for the first time in 20 years.  He clarifies the fine points of Chinese mythology, and winds up enigmaticly wandering in a siren-filled nightscape.  He suffers a stroke in 1999 and struggles to re-achieve fighting trim.  He digs up the dirt on the Japanese American Citizens League's complicity in the roundup and encampment of American-born Japanese during World War 2, and unveils their exalted leader as a government spy.  30 years later, Frank Chin publishes his documentary novel Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947, and he reads an ominous 9/ll-relevant passage from it.  A roadtrip through California gold country brings us to Chin's little-known childhood and his family's secret.
                        


Reviews

DUPONT GUYS:  The Resurrection

Review by Alvin Lu
Kearny Street Workshop News, Vol.1 No.1



What sets the blood racing more? A new film by Curtis Choy?  Or a new work by Frank Chin?  The value of both seems only to be enhanced by the lengths of perseverance, felicity, or plain connections it takes to get a glimpse of either.  But considering the fact that Chin has been steadily publishing in recent years, though sometimes it seems the only way to stumble across a new essay is by pure chance, while Choy's last film, as far as I know, was 1983's epochal The Fall of the I Hotel, well, all the better the new one is about...Frank Chin. Choy and Chin have long served, willingly or not, as the
"terrible children" of their respective theaters of operation, with the difference that Choy, especially in Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue (1976) and I Hotel, has been the primary documentarian of the spirit of Asian American counterculture, while Chin, the seemingly more tormented artist of the two, has been the manifestation of that spirit itself.  This is a subject for a much longer essay, but Chin occupies a position in Asian America that has no analogue elsewhere.  As with his camp
redress activity, he is at once the most invisible agent of and the single individual most responsible for what we vaguely understand to be Asian American culture.  There is a very short list of filmmakers who could examine that charged legacy without distortions or apologies.  Or would want to.
So while it is always a pleasure to see Chin in action - and here there are plenty of opportunities, captured over the years, of the master at his volcanic best: smoking a doobie to Flower Drum Song, reading jazzy porn at the first ever Asian American Writers' Conference, raving about Mike Masaoka, promising never to come back to the David Henry Hwang theatre ever again, and more - it is a greater pleasure, given relative scarcity, to see Choy back in action.   The weird mix; the nervous
rhythms; the snide sense of humor; the same feelings of confusion, disgust, hilarity, and surprise one gets rummaging through a Grant Avenue souvenir shop are all magically familiar.

An exercise in one of my film classes was to show some of Dupont Guy with the sound turned off and ask the class to write down what they thought they were seeing.  Delight, and recognition, occurred when the film played again with the sound turned on.  Sound didn't reflect.  It persistently commented, counterpointed, joked, or simply had nothing to do with.  One exemplary sequence in WWWFrankChin? takes place during the darkly humorous "chapter" about Chin's serial-killer correspondence with Maxine Hong Kingston.  (Were those actual letters Chin Wrote?)  An acted voiceover of Kingston's earnest response, in which she defends her transferrence of Yu Fei's tattoos to Fa Mulan, runs over footage of an utterly bewildered present-day Chin, riding an escalator in a glitzy Koreatown mall.  This cuts to King-Kok Cheung's Cantonese narration of a Fa Mulan poem playing over a breakneck montage of brilliantly colored Chinese childrens' books illustrations, showier and more dynamic than anything in Mulan.

Choy's archival research is impressive, but he goes further, reassembling the junk of the past into a quirky, homemade contraption.  "Assembling" is the right word: Choy's films are more like gadgets than what we think of as documentaries, impressing themselves with funny tricks and spewing steam in strange spots.  The sense of restless energy, which might explode at any moment, is perfectly tuned to the film's subject and all the more remarkable considering its narrative thread is held together by that most deadly of devices: interviews with writers and academics. All the third-party testimony turns WWWFrankChin? into a film largely about the Chin myth, the persona, not the person.  For those unfamiliar with it, it's a dead-on accurate summation of the tangle of issues the subject has woven around itself.  For those who are, it still packs plenty of surprises (like mind-bending footage of Chin's decidedly odd wedding ceremony).  But unlike with most writers, or even essentially literary-theatrical personalities like Chin, one gets the sense, for all that, there is another story here.  Choy provides what he can
without descending into expose.  There is enough of Chin the person here to suggest an as fascinating story, if not more so -and an utterly different film.  We see this in a remarkable shot that tracks our subject walking the streets of downtown L.A., alone at night.  The shot perfectly encapsulates Chin's fundamental disagreement with the world, an out-of-jointness which has defined his reputation.The best interview sequences with Chin, scattered throughout the film, oddly enough take place inside his car, with the seat-belt warning constantly beeping.  The ride eventually
brings us to Chin's personal history, providing the ending of the film and an unsatisfactory answer to the question of the film's title.
During the ending, I felt a sense of deja vu.  After it was over, I turned to a literary journal based out of Los Angeles, The New Review of Literature, which I had received in the mail, unsolicited, several months ago.  In the April 2004 issue was, as far as I know, Chin's most recently published essay, "The Road Doesn't Know Me Anymore," which might have been a title for this film.  In it, loosely arranged around a tale of JACL treachery and the camp resistance movement, is the story of Choy interviewing Chin on the road to El Dorado.  Chin's essay fills in some of the gaps the film leaves out, and vice versa.  It's an excellent companion piece.  Re-reading it, I realized the whole time Choy thought he was recording Chin, Chin was actually writing Choy.  It's an old writer's trick.  It's great to see the two of them still up to them.

 

 

Summary from 23rd San Francisco International Asian American
Film Festival program (March 10-20, 2005)

by Oliver Wang


Author, activist...curmudgeon: these are just some of the ways Frank Chin has been described.  For
three decades now, Chin has distinguished himself through rich, imaginative writings and controversial critiques on the state of Asian American culture. This new documentary by Curtis Choy (FALL OF THE I-HOTEL, SFIAAFF '83) captures Chin in all his full complexity and contradictions, unflinchingly displaying both his literary accomplishments and his personal controversies.  Choy profiles Chin's many accomplishments, from publishing the groundbreaking Asian American literature anthology AIIIEEEEE! to founding the annual Day of Remembrance memorials.  However, Choy is equally devoted to examining the more contentious parts of Chin's life. The film recounts the public battle between Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, letter by letter, blow for blow, neither coddling nor condemning either author's position.  Choy builds a portrait of Chin in full, unflinching detail, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions about the man's legacy. Adding nuance are commentaries by luminaries such as poet Lawson Fusao Inada, bookseller David Ishii and professor Elaine Kim.  Ultimately, however, it's Choy's impromptu interviews with Chin that offer the most provocative insights into the man.  The author's outspokenness may be legend, yet he remains an enigma to most.

 

Review by Sam Chen, Artistic Programmer
San Diego Asian Film Foundation


What's wrong with Frank Chin?  Frankly, even after watching Curtis Choy's documentary about this enigmatic and often cranky Renaissance man, I'm still not quite sure.  One thing certain is that Frank Chin can be quite insufferable. Given the opportunity, he will ruffle anyone's feathers and do so boisterously and ever so poetically.  You're not sure whether to love or hate him.  

Though he's been vilified and deified by many that have crossed his path, he still comes across as someone extremely likeable if not impossible.  In his often revealing and enlightening documentary, filmmaker Curtis Choy is given unprecedented access to his subject's thoughts, gripes, fears,
and neuroses.  At times, we are allowed a fly's POV where we sit afar and spy on Chin while he slouches in front of his word processor, pondering seemingly forever about what to write next.  He seems spaced out when he's not spewing rhetoric.  It's those precious moments that you actually feel most connected to this man.  It's the quiet somber solitude, the pauses between the rants and raves that ring most true.  

It's too bad he's mostly known for his big mouth.  Even during a seemingly ordinary town hall meeting, Chin comes across as captivating and charismatic, imbuing his speech with flair and showmanship.  I've come to realize that nothing seems ordinary about Frank Chin.  His life is a big show.

Like all good docs that strive to reveal certain insights and truths about their subject matters, there's a prerequisite respect that must exist between the filmmaker and his subject. It's no surprise that Choy and Chin are old partners in crime. Like his subject's persona, Choy injects his film with a frantic and frazzled sense of editing and pacing, rising and falling along with Chin's journey of outbursts through Asian American History.  You're never quite sure what Chin's going to do or say next.  Similarly, the film seems to twist and turn in synchrony, almost kicking and screaming.  By thoughtfully intersplicing interviews with historical footage, what amazed me was how far and deep Frank Chin has participated in Asian American History, and yet, he's not a household name. What's up with that?  

Everyone's heard of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Fa Mulan and yet, who's ever heard of Frank Chin?  For me, watching "What's Wrong With Frank Chin?" was like taking a crash course in Asian American Studies, which, I'm embarrassed to say, I managed to ditch or avoid completely during my five years at UCLA.  I walked away with a new appreciation and curiousity for our own history, our struggles, our Cause, and our elusive identity.  

Suffice to say that personally, this documentary has unexpectedly turned out to be the most Asian-American film of all the Asian-American films that I've seen in the last 5 years. It needs to be required viewing for all Asian-American Studiesmajors.

Having said all this, I'm still wondering what the heck's wrong with Frank Chin.

Review by Aram Siu Wai Collier,
Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival - November 2006

All you "fakes", "sell-outs" and especially "bad writers" take note:  there are a lot of
things wrong with Frank Chin.  The Asian American writer, playwright, actor, scholar
and activist of incomparable passion has been both revered and hated - sometimes
by the same person.  And he's likely to make your blood boil AND laugh out loud in
this latest feature from veteran documentarian Curtis Choy.

As part of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the political
consciousness of Asian Americans shifted to focus on multi-ethnic solidarity with an
emphasis on self-determination and (re)telling the history of Asians in America outside
the traditional racist institutions that made such a movement necessary.  Frank Chin
planted himself in the eye of this storm through his exhaustive work as a playwright,
novelist and activist, quickly garnering a reputation as the veritable polemicist (his
feuds about literary authenticity with writers Amy tan, David Henry Hwang and Maxine
Hong Kingston are hilariously bitter and legendary).  Although his contributions to the
Asian American movement are immeasurable, he remains widely unacknowledged.  
Chin would even be a "Renaissance Man" if only more people liked him.  Instead, he's
more like the embarrassing uncle of Asian America - he's family, but sometimes you
wish he wouldn't show up.

Director Choy is himself a fixture in Asian America with his seminal films The Fall of
The I-Hotel and Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue.  What's Wrong With Frank
Chin? showcases 30 years of his community-based documentary work through
archival photos, print and film, and interviews with numerous Chin contemporaries.  
Choy's sly editing creates visual and aural collages within scenes that both embellish
and contradict Chin, pushing the film beyond simple biography.  It's as if Choy is in
dialogue with Chin, a compelling display in all its obstinacy, sincerity and "Frankness".



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