Tasteful. Intense. Exquisite.
All of these words describe my favorite Korean treats: Soju, Korean Bar-B-Que, and Andrew Ahn.
I first met Andrew Ahn at the 2011 Outfest mixer last year. He walked up to me and I was thinking, “Why is this tall, slender Korean male approaching me?” I’m usually mistaken for either Chris Evan’s body double or to be told that the way I’m staring at them is making their girlfriend uncomfortable, so I was prepared for what he had to ask. It turned out we had a lot of mutual friends in common and he was there for the premiere of his latest short film, Andy.
His CalArts thesis film, Dol (First Birthday), produced in Los Angeles, CA, has been officially selected as part of the Short Narrative Fiction Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Dol is about a Korean-American man living with his boyfriend who finds himself yearning for a life out of reach at his nephew’s first birthday party – a dol.
The inspiration for the film is just as beautiful as the story itself – Andrew used this film to come out to his parents. About as dramatic and heart-stopping as the Korean soap operas I watch on Hulu – Andrew cast his own parents in the film without telling them what the story was about.
Move over, Boys Before Flowers.
When Andrew told me he got into Sundance it went something like this:
Andrew: So, I’m going to Sundance.
Me: Oh that’s cool! Are you going to see any films?
Andrew: Yeah… Mine.
Me: … O_o
I knew I had to talk to Andrew directly about this, so I picked the most hipster coffee shop in Silverlake, Intelligentsia, where we both wore plaid button ups, skinny jeans and slipons and drank $5 coffee.
ME: Thanks for coming to hipster central to talk! What’s the inspiration behind the film? How did the story come about?
ANDREW: I was really inspired by old family photographs and footage and I just wanted to make something really personal. I wanted to come out to my parents and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to tell them.
ME: Was it challenging to write it and then go into production?
ANDREW: The writing was actually easy. It was autobiographical; the relationships and dynamics is exactly what I have with my parents and my brother. The most difficult part was production.
ME: So going into this process, you used this as a catalyst to —-
ANDREW: — To come out to my parents. I knew I wouldn’t be able to say it to them, so this film kind of forced me off the ledge.
ME: Did you have this concept in your mind for a while?
ANDREW: Kind of. I knew it’d be hard to find Korean actors, of my parent’s age who are both bilingual, so I figured, ‘Oh! I’ll just cast them!’
ME: Was it difficult to find other actors to cast in these roles?
ANDREW: I wanted an actor that spoke both Korean and English and who felt more of this generation, someone who was the right age.
ME: I want to touch on the cast later because I know the way you cast it had a significant role in the film, but tell us more about the production.
ANDREW: It was self-produced and I knew I was coming out.
ME: You were legit hands on with every aspect then.
ANDREW: In a lot of ways, I didn’t want too many people because it was such a personal project. My biggest collaborator was my director of photography, Ki Jin Kim, who’s so amazing and really help distract me because he was reminding me, “How do we craft this film?”
ME: Did anyone else on crew know the reason why you were making this film?
ANDREW: Everybody did. Everybody knew.
ME: …Except certain cast members…
ANDREW: Except for my family. And it was a big, big secret. When we shot at my parent’s place for the celebration, I had to take my cast out and say, “You guys cannot say anything. I had to take all scripts, there were no scripts in the house, and I felt kind of terrible. It felt like this big fat lie. And after that shoot day I went outside and my friend was there and I just let it go. and I literally cried.
ANDREW: I literally just cried. It was because I felt like I deceived my whole family and they all tried so hard – as actors, as my parents – and I felt so guilty.
ME: So it wasn’t like a relief cry like, “Oh hey, y’all! It’s done!”?
ANDREW: Oh God, no. I knew that after I shot it, I had to tell them.
ME: Basically from the idea, to the script, to production, and especially after you shot that scene, there was no turning back.
ANDREW: No turning back. I was stuck. I wanted to be stuck, because if I had given myself an escape route, I probably would’ve taken it…
ME: Now that you can’t go back, why did you produce Dol now? Why not earlier in your career?
ANDREW: Part of it is because my parents are now older than my grandparents when they became parents. It felt like it was something I wanted to explore and for me, the best way to explore a topic is to make a film about it.
ME: Do you feel you still would’ve come out to your parents if you didn’t have this medium of filmmaking to portray it?
ANDREW: If I didn’t have filmmaking I probably would’ve… I don’t know… Painted a picture? Written a poem?
ME: Haha! But that’s who you are! Andrew Ahn is a filmmaker.
ANDREW: There’s something about the art of it which really helps me plan out things in my head. It’s a really powerful way to digest. And if I didn’t get into Sundance, it still would’ve been a success to me because of everything I learned throughout the process and how much I grew as a person by the end of it. All I had to do was show it to my parents; they were the only audience I really cared about.
ME: So you popped in the DVD to show them and…
ANDREW: And at the end they said, “Oh, is that it?” because they still believed I was straight and were probably thinking, “He’s straight, he just made a gay film.” I started crying and we had a very long conversation after. They’re still a little naïve on gay identity but at the same time still supportive of me.
ME: They’re still supportive of Andrew.
ANDREW: Yeah. And I feel like at that stage, that’s as much as I could ask for. The line of communication is now open. We can talk about it and that’s very encouraging.
ME: That’s so… freaking beautiful.
ME: Umm… If you could describe this film in three words what would they be?
ANDREW: Personal. Unresolved.
ANDREW: And… Gay Korean-American.
ME: Oh, Andrew Ahn.
ANDREW: But I will say this about the whole coming out process, in retrospective, it was totally silly and foolhardy and selfish, but I think that’s what coming out is. It’s very selfish and you need to do it – you need to take care of yourself. Especially in the Asian American community we’re so concerned about our families that at some point you have to be selfish to live the life you want to live. I think what I did was totally selfish and crazy but I think that that needs to happen to everybody and I’m going to own up to it.
ME: You have a very specific way of filmmaking, but which filmmakers do you look up to?
ANDREW: Kelly Reichardt who directed Michelle Williams in ‘Wendy and Lucy’—
ME: Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child?
ANDREW: …..No…. Michelle Williams from Brokeback Mountain
ME: OH! MICHELLE WILLIAMS!
ANDREW: …. SO anyways… The Dardenne Brothers a big influence. I really love this Japanese filmmaker, Ozu, too. I’m really inspired by small stories that feel emotionally expansive, emotionally big.
ME: So where can our readers see your film if we cannot make it Sundance?
ANDREW: It will actually be on Yahoo! Screen between 1/19 – 1/29 and people can vote for their favorite out of the competition.
ME: And what’s next after Sundance?
ANDREW: I have two features in the works. One is about two Korean American brothers wandering the streets of Los Angeles and the other one I’m developing is an erotic gay thriller set in a Korean spa.
ME: Ooh! Does someone get a facial?
ANDREW: … Yes.
ME: Is that one also based on a true story?
After, Andrew and I talked more but he had to head home to do some more errands for the film. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but luckily for those who cannot make it to Park City this weekend, we can watch his film online.I’m very excited to see it and I’ll be doing a review very soon.
Dol (First Birthday) can be viewed online now on Yahoo!Screen for free. You can vote for his film among the other filmmakers too. And if you are at Sundance this weekend, go check it out!