If you've wondered how
screenwriters name their characters, now I can't claim this is a scientific sample
but filmmaker Quentin Lee rather enjoys the in-joke that inspired his title
character's name -- the Chinese-American teenage boy who takes his homophobic
family hostage, in Lee's Ethan Mao (opening Friday at the Castro).
"Ethan is the name of the dog
of this guy I have a crush on. I was trying to pick an uncommon Chinese
(surname) - Lee, or Chan, or Wong sound very common without any sophistication.
So I decided to pick a rarer name and Mao came to mind because, of course,
Chairman Mao, but a character in Chinese literature is called 'Three Mao....I
was very much inspired by Thomas Hardy's tragic novels like Tess of the
d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure....Ethan Mao is a
Chinese-American like movie title."
Lee, who is far from over his own
beguiling boyish phase, dismissed the notion that the fetching resemblance
between himself and Jun Hee Lee, the gorgeous 19-year-old Korean-American actor
who becomes Ethan Mao, is in any way important. Lee adds that Ethan
Mao is a very risque role, the kind of part that many actors duck,
succumbing to the Hollywood syndrome of wanting the audience to love them.
Lee says he was actually looking for
a loveable quality in the actor who plays Remigio, the street savvy rent boy
who hooks up with Ethan. "I don't want the typical tough mean drug dealer
character. I want (Remigio) to be in some way almost innocent, that he's doing
it just because he's doing it." Lee adds that he chose to pick an actor of
a different race from Ethan, but not necessarily too polarizing a difference
like a black or white actor might have presented. "(That would say)
they're having relations because of the race difference. So I decided to cast a
Latino or Filipino."
Seeking to create a gay Asian rebel
icon, Lee wrote Ethan Mao as a formerly polite Chinese American teenager
- tossed out of his home when his stern father's new wife finds a male sex
magazine under his bed - who becomes a street hustler taking his very wacky
family hostage and to the brink of nuclear meltdown in sexy comedy/drama of
pretty boys testing the sincerity of first love while bedeviled by a hobgoblin
fun house of second marriages, angry dads, bullying half-brothers and very
The Hong Kong raised, Canadian
financed and American situated Lee enjoys wrapping what he alludes to as his
black post-modern comedies on the urgency and fecklessness of young boy love in
time warp puzzles that leave you wondering whether you're watching the
characters' lives or a hope chest of possible futures. An Asian-American
festival audience at the Castro was roaring at many lines that critics often
miss in professional screenings.
Lee, who comes sounding a bit like
a film studies professor, notes that audiences sometimes laugh out of
nervousness, "and that was what I was going for. That level of an
intelligent comedy makes you think about why you're laughing at it and creates
a critical distance between the audience and the film."
Lee's earlier feature, Drift, took
three fantasy laps around the pool of a young Asian American writer's desire to
free himself from a dead love bed. Ethan Mao is both a more and less
straightforward attempt to diagram all the sources of the title kid's anger
over his disinheritance by a grouchy father following the death of his beloved
mother. Lee admits his "bad mom" issues. "My mother figures tend
to reflect that difficult, flamboyant narcissistic mom who isn't able to
provide emotionally for the kids."
Gay kids often have their most
serious issues with misguided dads and Ethan Mao's strongest suit is the
dramatic tension between Ethan's estrangement from his Chinese born father and
his meeting a possible big brother/lover in the sexy drug dealer Remigio.
Oddly enough a misreading of the
film by this writer and many festival audiences makes it an even more
intriguing candidate for a second or third viewing. Lee says that many have mistakenly
interpreted the episode in which Ethan and Remigio take his family hostage as
having been a dream of Ethan's. Lee explains how he first conceived the story
and the changes he made in the film's ending on the advice of a friend.
"What I intended was that the
ending be more of a flashback, which means that everything that happens in the
movie actually happens and then in the middle part Ethan dreams, and that
becomes a dream within a dream and then he wakes up again. Some audiences have
though that it was all dream, and because Ethan takes drugs, that it was a drug
induced dream or fantasy. I did intend a dream like sensibility for the movie,
because it's a teen movie about a teen crush. When you're a teenager having
your first crush it's all very dreamy and you don't know what's real and what's
"The original ending was more
tragic than I intended -- you actually see them getting shot. I showed it to a
friend of mine, who actually got kicked out of his house, and he (said) it felt
like everything that these two had gone through amounted to nothing. To him it
was actually pretty sad. I took that to heart, thought more about the ending
and decided to make it more ambiguous, so you can decide as the audience what's
going to happen to them."
"But ultimately, the movie is
also about teen angst and the fact that young gay Asian kids are still a little
marginal because they're not the 'A' list that you want to date. That pressure
creates a desire to conform. Taking one's family hostage is a kind of call to
arms, saying, 'Don't worry about people liking you to much. Sometimes you just
have to go out and kick some asses.'"
Sporting a bright red
"Everyone loves an Asian boy" T-shirt and a Clay Aiken spiky hair do,
Jun Hee Lee, 'Juni' to friends -- the only Asian kid in his St. Louis high
school class -- confesses to a mistake in his audition scene with co-star Jerry
Hernandez that may have helped him nail the role of Ethan Mao, as well
as easing two straight boy actors into their characters' strong erotic subtext.
"I actually kind of messed up
in the call back. I had read the script and thought, 'Oh, this is the kissing
scene.' So I said my line and Jerry pauses and then I kissed him, which wasn't
in the script." The bold kiss, very convincingly staged in the final film,
actually served as an ice breaker and Hernandez recalls later telling his
agent, "'If I get picked for this I hope to work with that guy again.'"
Juni and Jerry finish each other's
sentences during our chat in a downtown hotel suite, joke about making Ethan
Mao bobble heads, and laugh as they recall "combat" moments
during the shoot -- the broiling LA heat the day they filmed a crucial car
scene with the A/C off, their shirts clinging to their bodies in giant sweat
rings; or the moment during the home hostage sequence when Jerry's Remigio is
suppose to punch Juni's Ethan. Hernandez actually hit his co-star in the jaw in
two of three takes, prompting Juni to joke, "It's the method actor in him.
I think he really wanted to slug me." Juni says the actor chosen to play
the older john, who practically rapes Ethan in a car, played the scene rough,
bumping Juni's head up against the car window, "making that moment feel
very ferocious and raw on screen."
Hernadez said that for him the drug
dealer in Ethan Mao was a nice change of pace from a diet of clean cut
kids, including a homophobic jock he played in a short film at Sundance. Both
young actors stressed how terrific director Lee was helping them prepare --
taking them clubbing around queer LA.
As a young Asian American
performer, Juni feels he's often reduced to playing wannabe rap artists and
other marginal culture shock characters, which is funny considering his brief
career fronting a failed Korean boy band. Ethan Mao was one of the rare
chances he's had to be the lead, the title character no less. "Everyone
says I got it because I looked the most like Quentin."
Later outside the hotel, dying for
cigarette, Juni and I are both startled by how quickly a jive talking street
merchant offers a pack of smokes. Juni laughs and then starts studying the
shadowy figure, as if soaking up body language, small gestures, a walk, the
living cool of the street.