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David Lamble

Post date:
04/03/05- 00:00:00 AM
San Francisco Bay Area

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Ethan Mao


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 wicked stepmothers.

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 not."

"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.   

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