For ten years, the PS 124 club has been the only Asian American team to compete in the renowned Junior Theater Festival. The group is one of the few select schools to nationally premiere the kids production of Frozen.
In Curtain Up!, directors Hui Tong and Kelly Ng give us a glimpse into the lives of these young thespians and how they are growing up coming into their cultures and identities alongside their love of the arts. Tong and Ng join PAAFF to talk about some of the joys, challenges, and surprises in transforming their thesis project short film into a full-length feature.
Tell me about how you found this story and what drew you to it.
Hui: I was a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School in summer 2018 and was doing research and reporting work. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, everyone was excited about this new milestone for Asian representation. As an enthusiastic theater actor and director (and teacher at a kids’ summer theater camp) in college, I was curious about how Asians were doing in the theater/musical industry. So I started interviewing a lot of Asian/Asian American theater artists in New York and it finally led me to find the Broadway legend Baayork Lee and the theater club that she helped found at Yung Wing Elementary School in Chinatown. I was totally drawn by the kids the first time I visited them; their seriousness and professionalism was beyond my expectation, and a group full of Asian American kids doing musical theater was such a rarely seen thing. They were doing “Aladdin” at that time and I learned that they had been doing all Disney musicals — Asian American kids in Chinatown doing iconic American shows. Wow. I thought I was going to find some stories, and started filming right away.
This film originally started as a short for class and then you expanded it into a feature. Can you tell me about the moment you knew this was a bigger story than 30 minutes could hold?
Kelly: Part of it, for me, was when we started to feel vexed about not being able to include Jack and Alvin into the 30-minute short. (I remember us having several long discussions about this!) While I wouldn’t expect any two Asian children to be the same, the variety of personalities, family backgrounds, interest toward theater, etc, was one key thing that tugged at me through this process of documenting the club and its young participants. And I personally wish for the audience to take that away too.
Hui: Oh it’s not just for class but for our thesis project. But yeah, I think around the time when we were able to get into the kids’ homes and really learn more about their personal stories, as well as the larger social issues that they talked about, I started to consider the possibility of making a feature, though it was still a few months before our graduation date. In the editing process we initially had a very long rough cut and tried very very hard to make it a 30 minute short, so after we submitted our thesis we came back to our edits and did some additional shooting which we thought would be valuable to the making of a feature. Anyways, I really want it to be seen and the topics in it to be discussed, so a feature would be a good medium for that.
What were some of the challenges you found while making this film and what did you learn?
Kelly: As a first-time filmmaker, I found the process of storyboarding challenging – and in particular, cutting the “fat”. I think there were many points when we wanted to include more soundbytes or a few more shots, which resulted in some earlier versions running too tight. We ran a few “rough cut screenings” by many others, both professional filmmakers and non-pros who simply love films, and were greatly helped by having their perspectives, especially because they were not as close to the material. I remember someone commenting on one of the earlier cuts that things were happening so quick they found it “difficult to breathe”!
Also, as someone who has spent all of my journalism life in print prior to Curtain Up!, I took a while to get used to the visual storytelling approach – which is something I’m still learning. The quotes and soundbytes often strike me more and earliest, as they would a typical print reporter, hence I really appreciated reminders by Hui and others to also check if the visuals hold up.
Hui: I think it is both a challenge and a lesson to figure out what the “connection” with our documentary subjects really mean. We had been filming the kids doing their rehearsals just fine for a few months when we realized that we might have taken it for granted that we have won their trust and established true connections. But we had not. Because we were closely following them around they started to get a bit tired of us, tried to avoid the camera, and even called us stalkers — that was very heart-breaking! There was some misunderstanding there and we reached out to some of the main characters’ parents to “apologize”, and some of the kids even came back to us to “apologize”, and that was when we felt like we built some real connection with them, and their parents as well. Actually all our home scenes took place after this crisis. So it does take time, authentic heart and some challenge to really build connection with your subjects.
Also since this started as a student project but I really wanted to bring it out into the world, it was also challenging to really get into the industry and learn what making a documentary truly is, besides just filming and editing. By all the staff that we as producers also have to do after the post-production was done, I was a bit mentally exhausted (since for me it is not that naturally appealing as filming and editing is), but was also learning so much and is still learning.
Your film explores what it means to be both Asian and American, to be pulled different directions at times. What did you go into this film expecting and what did you find that surprised you?
Hui: I was born and raised in Beijing and came to the U.S. for college more than six years ago, and had always been grappling with this idea of “who I am” as seen by the Americans: as Chinese, as Asian, or in many cases even as Asian Americans? In college, my international Chinese student community had very little connection with Asian American communities and I really wanted to learn how their experiences growing up in America differ from or resemble ours. Also many international Chinese students who were more into American culture also tried very hard to assimilate into it. All these aspects mixed really informed me with the complexity that our identity/identities can bring to us as human beings and I did expect to find such complexity when I decided to start chasing the story in Curtain Up!. But though I knew I wanted to explore the issue of identity through theater/music, I never expected that the kids would have such deep thoughts about the issue. It really really shocked me when Charlotte talked about how she might have to be the top best to get a role, when William talked about not having the opportunity to learn the history of Chinese Americans at school, and when all the boys at a dinner suddenly started discussing who are Asians or Chinese. Living and growing up in America, they see and think about those things, and sometimes being “American” is also pushing those kids to dig into what it means by being Asians at very young ages. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but those thoughts will be with them for long time in their teenage years, and I’d really like to see what those kids turn into in a few years — I bet they will surprise me again!
Kelly: Perhaps I should point out at the outset that I am not Asian American. I’m ethnically Chinese, born and bred in Singapore, a country which, arguably, is fairly heavily influenced by American media and practices. I did grow up though in a traditionally Chinese family – brought up by a typical “Tiger mom” and a father who sees elders’ superiority as sacrosanct, with Mandarin as our only medium of communication. But growing up, my family background wasn’t quite typical among my “more English-educated” friends.
I’m embarrassed to say that I embarked on the documentary some preconceived notions of what “growing up in America” would be like. I didn’t quite expect the pursuit of the arts to be such a tinderbox in some of these children’s families – like it was in mine. So I was pretty surprised that there were many more similarities (daily routines too, like how my father up till now forbids me from drinking iced water in the mornings) between these kids and myself than I had expected.
Tell me about your favorite scene from the film.
Kelly: My favorite happens about two-third into the film – when William takes the centerstage during his solo item at the Junior Theatre Festival in Atlanta, and Jenny cheers him, heartily, off stage. Up until then, what most viewers may have taken away from this mother-son relationship is Jenny vehemently discouraging William from going into the arts because that supposedly can’t earn him a living, etc. But here, we see her beaming with pride at her son’s artistic talents. This adds a few more layers to what might seem like the “strict Asian mom” stereotype. I hope this leaves viewers among us who might wrestle with the same familial tension something to think about. It could be that our parents are to some extent quietly supportive of our artistic endeavours; or perhaps they, too, are shifting in where they stand on the issue? The hug Jenny and William share in the later part of the scene is especially endearing for me.
Hui: Yes I also really love that scene, and as Kelly says, that really shows what being a parent is like, that mixed feeling of wanting your children to have a secure life in the future while hoping them to do what they like and taking pride in their achievements. But I also like, as I may have alluded to, the scene when the boys at the dinner suddenly start talking about themselves being Asians and even joke with each other for being “less Asian” or “more Chinese” etc. To give a little bit context to it, this happened when the kids were at the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta and were surrounded by all teams from major English-speaking countries, who are mostly white. It was in this small world that they see and feel themselves to be different and this self-consciousness led to their discussion of who they are. It leads me and I hope it leads people to think: when does identity become important to people, who decides who we are, and how do the people of the minority groups react to the world that looks unfamiliar to them? And this also relates to the ending, when Jack and Charlotte both talk about going into a new environment where they were not among the dominant cultural group.
What have been some memorable conversations you’ve seen this film spark so far?
Kelly: Several people I spoke to had talked about how they felt a personal connection (someone said “surreal”) to the cultural expectations and tension aspects of the film; such as how the kids were pulled in different directions – in several ways I guess some among us continue to experience this as adults. There were some, Asian American artists themselves, who spoke of the raw-ness of some of these struggles and difficult decisions they have had to make, but the kids’ very articulation of their dreams is a hopeful sign that the needle has moved.
Hui: I guess one of the most common conversations I have with the audiences is their surprise that there is an almost all Asian school in New York, and their curiosity about why parents would choose to send their children there and what are the pros and cons of it. They are usually more surprised at hearing that many parents who live outside the Chinatown area would send their children to this school just in order to get their children surrounded by kids from similar cultural backgrounds and thus more familiar with their cultural roots.
What do you hope different audiences take from this film?
Kelly: I hope it offers some food for thought that there is no one, defining “Asian” experience. Perhaps everyone, regardless of color and aspirations, might see a bit of themselves in some of these kids. I also hope viewers share the film and their takeaways from it widely; best if they would discuss or even debate it! I’m particularly excited for students, educators and parents to see it.
Hui: I hope that the wide range of topics that this film touches upon, e.g. Asian representation in theater/film, third culture kids having pulling forces from society and family, chasing dreams vs. familial expectations, and simply the fun and challenging experience of practicing theater, etc. can appeal to people from different cultural backgrounds and professions. This should be a film that you can watch from different lenses and why don’t we spend the time watching a feel-good movie that will make you laugh and give you hope after all that has happened this year!