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Sometimes, you have to break trends to make them. And, in his new film Front Cover, that’s exactly what Hong Kong-born filmmaker Ray Yeung has done. The feature tells the story of Ryan Fu (Jake Choi), a gay Chinese American stylist who grew up in New York resentful of his ethnicity. One day, he’s given an assignment styling Ning (James Chen) – patriotic, closeted and one of the biggest actors in China. After a rocky start, they soon fall for one another, leading them to question long-held beliefs and identities. It might sound like your typical boy-meets-boy rom-com but, poigantly, the film eschews the archaic but still all-too-visible practice of so-called ‘whitewashing’. That is, the use of Caucasian actors to play non-Caucasian roles (ScarJo and Matt Damon, we’re very much looking at you).
Although a love story at its core, Front Cover – which has screened at more than 30 film festivals the world over, picking up numerous prizes along the way – also explores ideas of self-acceptance through an ethnic lens. Ahead of its Hong Kong run, we talk with Yeung about why filmmaking has served as a form of unwitting therapy and the message in the narrative for Hongkongers.
Why was it important that Ryan rejects his Chinese heritage?
I think that has a lot to do with my own experience. Growing up when I did in Hong Kong, if you associated with any Chinese culture you’d be told off, but if you associated with English culture you were praised. And when I went to English boarding school, I was one of the few Asian guys there. It was hard to fit in. So of course you have to try to speak without an accent and just pretend to be one of the guys. They say making a movie is like therapy and this very much was!
How are the ‘old’ and ‘new’ China represented in your film?
The main character grew up in Chinatown after his parents emigrated and brought with them the idea of China being second-class – they went to America to make their lives better. Now, when the Chinese go to the West, they often buy their way in. So the ‘new’ Chinese people would have a sense of pride about who they are. But, in the ‘old’ China, so to speak, there’s much less pride. Ryan grew up with an old Chinese mentality of feeling second-class and looking up to Western culture. Ning doesn’t feel that he has to look up to Western culture but feels maybe it’s the West that needs to catch up.
In casting two Chinese leads, were you making a comment on ‘whitewashing’?
When I was making the movie I didn’t think that much about it. But I had a lot of people saying that I had two Asian main characters and did I think that a Caucasian audience would be able to identify? But I’ve grown up with white heterosexual male movies and I’ve never had that problem. I just really wanted to show two Asian guys falling in love.
What can Hongkongers take away from your movie?
Hong Kong is at a point where a lot of locals are rejecting their Chinese identity. But how much of that is the residue of the colonial mentality? I feel that Hongkongers have a more arrogant attitude [than other Chinese] because they are ‘Westernised’. So what they can hopefully take away is a sense of pride about being Chinese. There are issues that we need to deal with and problems we need to solve, but we shouldn’t reject the idea of being Chinese completely.