Director Ray Yeung has the type of authentic voice that Hollywood needs right now. Yueng’s newest film FRONT COVER is a candid portrayal of cultural experiences in America. The film’s exploration of how our identity is shaped by both our sexuality and ethnicity is eye-opening and worthy of deeper conversation.

However, the film is first and foremost a love story. FRONT COVER centers around Ryan (Jake Choi), a young Chinese-American man who is conscious about the stereotypes that surround his race. He is assigned to be the stylist for a Chinese actor, Ning (James Chen), who is visiting America to promote his new film. Despite sharing a similar cultural background, the two clash over the differences in American and Chinese perceptions. As the film progresses, Yeung explores how our desires to maintain one public identity can stand in the way of true happiness.

CV: I think now is sort of the perfect time for a film like this because I think both the issues of gay and minority representation in film and television is really hitting a turning point where we can finally talk about this more openly.

YEUNG: Yes, yes…I think it’s good that people are beginning to make noise, and I think, honestly, I feel that this conversation should have taken place twenty years ago. A bit slow…but better now than never.

CV: Absolutely. I wanted to start off by talking about the two leads of the film (actors Jake Choi and James Chen). What really struck me about the movie was that they have great both comedic and eventually romantic chemistry together, and I was curious what was your casting process like when trying to find these two actors?

(Left) James Chen, (Right) Jake Choi

YEUNG: Well, it was difficult because not a lot of Asian actors have a lot of track records, so we really basically had to see everybody on both coasts, east and west and actually Canada as well, and some in Asia as well. We were very lucky. We have a casting director; she liked the script and was willing to do it for not a lot of money.

So we saw everybody and we did a lot of casting…finally we had a few actors that we really liked and we tried to match them up together. Our screen test was having them kiss each other, just to see whether they have a fear of kissing another man and also whether they feel comfortable being open and romantic with the other person…then afterwards we have a lot of rehearsals just so they can get to understand the characters and where they’re coming from.  

CV: I know you have experience with doing a lot of feature-length as well as short films, but you also have some experience as a stage director. How do those experiences lend to each other in terms of how you direct your actors?

YEUNG: I think that all those experiences I use in the sense that I’m not scared of talking to actors. I think some directors I know are…more comfortable dealing with the technical side and not really comfortable talking with actors and emotions. I think, because I’ve worked on stage before, I actually have a lot of friends who are actors as well, so once they become friends you find it much easier to let them know what you want. And a lot of actors…are very professional. 

You just really need to lead them in the right direction and they are able to figure it out themselves. Also, giving actors a certain respect as well so they can do their own thing. I always feel that it’s…like you go to a doctor you say, “Hey, I feel like this, I feel like that,” so the doctor will be able to treat you by what you tell them because they’re professionals and actors it’s the same. You just tell them…”This is the emotion”…Let them figure out how to do it.

CLICK: Want more director interviews? Check out our interview with director Yue Song.

CV: That definitely comes through in the performances. They feel very natural and very lived in throughout the film.

YEUNG: Thank you.

CV: You wrote the film and I thought that the themes of identity and private versus public personas suit the entertainment industry so well. Since the main characters both work in the entertainment industry, they seem to be perfectly fit together in terms of your theme and the plot. How did you arrive at that decision to set the story in the entertainment industry?

YEUNG: I feel that it is important that Ryan is a character who is very uncomfortable with himself, so he puts up a front and I think setting in the fashion world is interesting because fashion…is an industry which is based on insecurity… Also, his job is a fashion stylist, which I think is a very interesting job. It’s a modern kind of job where you actually dress someone…different from themselves, how they usually dress, put them into something else so they appear more acceptable to the world.

It’s a very, very interesting job… It kinda suits his personality. Then the other character, Ning, who is someone who is an actor, who has to face the world all the time so he has to put up a front, and now we have someone to style him to actually put him in a different kind of image…so I think the whole thing works together really well about how we always put up a front in order to try to fool the world. And sometimes when we put up the front so often that we actually forget who we really are.

CV: And even Ryan himself, as the stylist, is changing his own image and his own family background to what he wishes it would be.

YEUNG: Yes…pretending he’s not growing up in Chinatown, or his parents doing a different job. And I think that is part of being in an American dream…sometimes you try so hard to go so far that you just forget about all the things you left behind.

CV: Speaking of this idea about his background and his race, you were very frank and honest throughout the film in terms racial microaggressions that Ryan has to go through when his boss, for example, assumes he would be the best one to speak to the Chinese actor because of his ethnicity. Was there any level of personal experiences that inspired those scenes in the film?

YEUNG: Yes…I go to a lot of interviews…a lot of people will ask me questions like, “Are you just going to make gay films?” “Are you just going to make Chinese films?” And I think, “You didn’t ask Martin Scorsese does he only make straight films or Italian films.” I just make films about the world I want to represent and it happens I’m gay, I’m Chinese. The fact is, there are so many good heterosexual Caucasians making great movies, why do you want me to make one? Don’t you want to see what my story is? Why do you want to change me? Right? So, I just don’t understand that people have this assumption that, “Oh, okay, because you’re Chinese, you’re Asian, therefore, is that the only thing you can make?” and it’s not understanding that that is the world we live in.

CLICK: For more on Asian representation in media, check out our round table discussion.

CV: When you sit down to write these films, it definitely comes through that you want to portray both the Chinese-American and the gay lifestyle in a very honest way. And that honesty can be very shocking, like there are some comments that Ryan makes about his sexual preferences being influenced by race that some people might think are a little misguided, or even offensive. Do you ever worry about offending people when writing these films or are you just focused on the truth and the honesty of it?

YEUNG: Well…the character Ryan is going through a journey, so at the beginning we need to see…his status quo, where he is from. And I think the character, because like I said, he has to press his Chinese side so much, the reason being that if you are a gay Asian man in the gay scene, you are seen as the bottom of the pile in terms of attractiveness.

There’s a lot of negative stereotypes that are associated with it. It’s very difficult to feel good about yourself when the perfect male image is mainly blonde hair, white, blue eyes, and all that. So a lot of Asian men, the only way that they feel they can fit into the scene is by dating a white man… The character of Ryan is someone who is at that point in his life where he still believes that by dating a white man that he is more sophisticated and he is different from any other Asian man because he only dates white men… So yes, it is frank, but it is also necessary for the plot.

CV: If we’re looking at this from a very big picture perspective, how do you think we, as a society, can change those incorrect perceptions on race and sexuality being so interlocked with each other?

YEUNG: I think people need to be more open and get beyond the stereotype, beyond lumping people together, and get to know people a little bit more. I mean, nowadays…it feels like we have gone backwards and we have been living in a very xenophobic world where it’s okay to be racist. It’s okay to openly say, “We don’t want Mexicans, we don’t want Muslims, we don’t want this, we don’t that,” which is so untrue… It seems it’s okay to say it now and it’s okay to openly be racist…and people don’t feel any kind of shame anymore. I feel that with a movie like this…hopefully people can see beyond that and accept people for who they are and…not bring in so much prejudice when they talk about people who are different from you.

I think the media has a very big responsibility as well. Even on TV and movies still we just see Caucasian stories and Caucasian characters everywhere. I mean, we don’t want a prime time show with just Asians, we just want it to represent the world that we are in which is full of different colors, and full of different races, and full of people with different personalities. People keep saying, “Oh, well, Hollywood keeps churning out the same stories,” there’s a lack of stories because they only want to tell middle-class white stories. That’s why it’s boring. That’s why they need to explore more. I don’t know why the people who are in power do not want to do that. But surely exploring more culture and different races and different people will make more interesting stories.

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CV: And although we are discussing these large, heavy themes about race in our society, the film is ultimately a love story. I really enjoyed that, even though the film is very modern in terms of the type of romance it’s portraying, it has a very classic romantic style and structure to it. The protagonists meet, and at first they can’t stand each other, and eventually they grow to have a stronger affection for one another, and I was curious, what primarily influenced the romantic aspects of the film when you were writing?

YEUNG:  I think it’s because when you are growing up and you’re Asian and you’re gay, and watch all these romantic movies and all the characters are blonde and tall…but I want that kind of love story, that kind of romance that could happen to me too… So I feel…make your own then in that case. Why not make your own love story and have two gay Asian characters so that gay Asians or younger generations can watch and say, “I could have that romance as well.”

I do want to make the movie be very accessible to the audience and actually entertaining as well because I do not want to make a gay Asian movie where it’s very art house… Then people can just put it in a certain category and only a very elite type of people who like that type of movie will see it. I want the movie to be opened up to more people so that it’s more accessible to more people and I feel that in order to do that you have to use a very classic kind of model in order to portray it so people can be entertained. Also laughing is always a good thing… Then they start thinking about it and start assimilating the message without being told.

CV: What’s ironic is that even though you are using a classic structure, because you are doing it in such a way that hasn’t been seen before, it makes the old archetype and structure seem fresh.

YEUNG: Thank you.

CV: [Spoilers for the end of the film] I also thought that it was very bittersweet and powerful in the end because the characters don’t end up together. What was your thought process in choosing to end the film that way?

YEUNG: I feel that the story is important where one character decided to choose to accept who he is and the other character doesn’t so the audience can leave the cinema and say, “Okay, which character would I want to be?” and what kind of sacrifice that character has to give up in order to be successful in his career. Also, for the story itself, we tried different endings when we were writing and it just didn’t feel truthful. It just felt that if someone, who is from China, who is a rising actor, giving that up or coming out is just almost impossible. I think it’s also important for the audience to see that…in Western society being gay is open and acceptable in many ways, but there are many, many places where being gay is still an issue.

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CV: I think it’s great that you show that because I think sometimes in America we forget that the rest of the world has not reached the level of progress that we have. We still have a long way to go, but I think it’s valuable that you included that.

YEUNG: Yes, I mean, FRONT COVER still cannot be shown in a lot of countries in Asia.

CV: Really?

YEUNG: Yeah, like in Singapore, they wouldn’t show it because it’s two gay Asians falling in love. Right there, it’s already a problem. [With] two Caucasians it would be easier… The public would find it easier to identify with [Ryan and Ning] because they’re Asian, so they wouldn’t show it… In many ways, it’s very open, but when it comes to the gay issue it’s still very taboo.

CV: As a filmmaker whose heritage comes from that area, do you think you’ll be able to break through that barrier?

YEUNG: I think…just keep on making noise. In Hong Kong as well, I also run the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival for many years now, just making sure that we exist, we’re still making noise, we do not be quiet and things will change.

CV: If you could recommend one film to the audience reading this that you feel sums up what inspires you to be a director, what would it be?

YEUNG: I think the movie that I’ve watched and I thought was great was Pedro Almodóvar LAW OF DESIRE. It’s a Spanish movie…all the characters are very loopy, very crazy, and very unreal, but yet after the end of the movie you can identify with all of them because, even though they’re very bizarre, they all have a certain passion, and they all have their own objective and they all of have their reasons for being who they are. At the end, you think, okay, they might be crazy but I like them all and I accept them all, and I think the world should be like that. We should embrace the differences… No one is perfect, but we are all, at the end of the day, nice people, I think most of us are anyway. And if you understand these people then you will begin to love them really and you won’t feel so alienated with the world or look at people in a particular way.

That movie…is very crazy, if people haven’t seen it. It’s wacky and it’s bizarre, and yet, at the same time, it’s full of warmth and passion and humor. That’s the one movie I watched and said, “Oh my God, this is wonderful, I want to do that.”

CV: What advice would you give to any aspiring filmmakers?

YEUNG: I think, if you are Asian or any ethnic, minority groups, it’s not going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy. I don’t want you to think tomorrow someone is going to call you up and ask you to make a big Hollywood movie. It’s not going to happen. You really have to think about why you want to do this and what kind of stories you want to tell and just really be truthful. It’s never going to be easy, but the process itself is enjoyable and you have to enjoy what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

For more information regarding FRONT COVER, check out the film’s official website. For more information on the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, click here.

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