by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: Film still
New Bloom editor Brian Hioe interviewed KEFF, a Taiwanese-American writer, director, musician, and artist, on his recent film The Secret Lives of Asians at Night. The Secret Lives of Asians at Night recently won the Jury Award in the Asian-American category at the Director’s Guild of America Student Film Awards.
Brian Hioe: First, could you introduce yourself for readers that might not know you?
KEFF: Sure—I’m KEFF, a Taiwanese-American writer, director, musician, and artist, based in New York but currently living in Taipei.
BH: So what it was that led you to make the film, The Secret Lives of Asians at Night? Do you think it has to do with your background?
KEFF: I moved to the US when I was ten. When you’re an immigrant at that age, going to a new place, your greatest priority is fitting in. I moved to a neighborhood that was 95 percent white—in that context, it meant having to neglect and suppressing the Asian part of myself.
I remember when my Mom would speak Mandarin to me in public I would get upset with her. I would say: “we’re in America, speak English.” Or she would would make luroufan for me and I would bring it to school and get made fun of. I’d ask her: “why can you just give me Lunchables or something standard like everyone else?”
As a result, I never really thought that much about being Asian growing up. I didn’t really think of it as a culture or heritage—just more of a statistic, like your height or eye color.
When I went to college in Boston, it was the first time I started to meet all kinds of people outside of that bubble I grew up in—not just other Asian-Americans with my kind of experience that I clicked with very easily, but also all kinds of international Asians who had an immense amount of pride for who they are, which is not something I ever had.
That set me off on a journey of self-discovery. Especially once I moved to New York, I became more reinvested in my heritage and in my culture. And I began to realize that I felt more comfortable—that all my values and all my thinking and all my everything align more—with self-identifying as Asian. It made me ashamed of how I’d been in the past.
At the same time, I was becoming more aware of all the micro-aggressions, prejudice and injustice that Asian-Americans and Asian people face in the United States. It’s always been there in plain sight, but to see it clearly for the first time made me really angry.
For example, Asian people are one of the most popular targets for home invasions and robberies in the United States. Americans think Asian people are rich—that they don’t use banks, that they don’t put up a fight, that they’re not going to call the cops. So they’re naturally an easy target.
We’re also targets for random violence. In the East Village, there were two separate occasions where an old Chinese man went for a walk and were randomly beaten to death by some bored youth. That was a block from where I used to live. It made me so upset and so angry.
I started becoming more aware of how socially, culturally, and in entertainment, we’re constantly looked down upon and seen as passive, beta, quiet. At the time I was working as a DJ. I was hanging around a lot of Asians that don’t fit the stereotype of what Asians are supposed to look like, whether they were DJs, drug dealers, or just typical kids trying to let loose for a night.
I knew kids who were putting themselves through undergrad by escorting and keeping it a secret—living all these double lives hidden in plain sight. I thought it was a really compelling and funny idea: “what do the “quiet Asians in America” really do after dark”?
BH: Is that where the focus on nightlife comes from in the movie?
KEFF: For sure. Unfortunately for a short film I could only pick one story in the world to focus on. The one that was most compelling to me at the time was this question about internal conflict within our communities when we’re all minorities in America, and the right way to explore that felt like through gangs—three very tightly insulated, “we only look after our own” gangs that essentially serve and run themselves like a family.
They say when you make a film, you have to be clear on what your story is about, and what your story is really about. The story is about what happens when a Chinese, Japanese, and Korean get into a Mexican standoff in a karaoke bar. But what the story is really about is: why are we all fighting each other when we’re all minorities in America?
Of course, at the same time, without being direct about it, the story’s also about how Asians in America are not easily compartmentalizable underneath one umbrella stereotype.
BH: I thought it was a very interesting element that they all spoke their own languages throughout the film.
KEFF: Right—all the Asians being able to speak their own languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean) and yet still understand each other. A lot of my sense of humor in this film was really directly influenced by wanting to turn a lot of shit I heard in my life into a joke.
With the language thing, I remember one time I was speaking with my mom in Mandarin in the airport and someone came up and say, “Whoa, are you speaking Japanese?” I was like, “Nah, it’s Chinese, can’t you tell?” And he got defensive and said “ dude, whatever, you guys all sound the same anyways. “
When the time came to make the film, I thought it would be funny to make up a language called “Asian” based on that experience, while simultaneously using a shared language to help highlight how we’re different but also share things in common.
That ended up being a ton of work. With acting—especially with young actors or new actors, your biggest fear is that when they’re performing, they’re just waiting to talk. That’s already a problem, but with all the different languages, they really had to learn each other’s lines, not just their own, to perform as if they understood what was said as it was said. So it was really difficult, but they put in the work and pulled it off.
The biggest joke is that the first time I screened it at NYU, everyone thought it was a real language. All the non-Asian people in the audience were like,” I didn’t know you guys had a shared language.” I didn’t correct them. I was going to do subtitles in different colors to help distinguish the languages, but then I thought, “no, it’ll be funnier if I don’t.”
Side-note: most of our cast is Asian-American. When they auditioned, I asked them to do a monologue for me in English and then in their native language. For some reason, almost every single time, their monologue in their native language was better. And these are people who grew up in America, who speak English better than they speak Chinese or Japanese or Korean.
I couldn’t understand why. But my guess is that to ask them—even if they didn’t speak it as fluently as English—to perform in their native language, a naturalness emerges. I think if you’re training to be an actor in America, you have an idea of what an American actor is. It just felt to me at times that when they were speaking English, that they were doing an impression of what an actor is supposed to be. To go “native” was to become that much more effortless.
If I had my hesitations about making up a language, they all pretty much went away once it became clear that this was pretty much the way to get the best performance from my actors.
BH: Along those lines, what did you think the challenges of making the film were? The actors, the settings, the filming itself?
KEFF: I think any time you make a student film, it’s always difficult. One issue is the amount of resources you have available. A second issue is the amount of experience people have, whether it’s their actual experience, their professionalism, or their attitude.
We had six days to shoot. So I think the biggest challenge was that it was rushed. But everything I thought was going to be difficult, particularly the acting, was not that difficult.
Sometimes I get self-conscious on set and wonder if I’m full of shit and making something that rings false. But generally, when we were filming I didn’t feel like I was pretending to do something I didn’t know anything about. I felt very comfortable and consistent. A director’s only real job is to know what he or she wants, and it was a lot easier to make decisions very quickly because I know that world, I know these people and I know that story.
Of course, there are things that we could have done better. But, overall, I feel pretty good about it.
BH: You also made the music in the film, I noticed.
KEFF: My DJ friends X&G and I worked together very closely, but they did all of the actual producing. I didn’t want a very traditional soundtrack and I thought they would be perfect for it.
We collaborated on a less traditional process. Normally when you add music into the film, you lock the cut first with temp music, then you send it off to the composer.
I don’t like this way of working because, first, you get married to the temp music that you put in. You put in Hans Zimmer and then you’re like “OK, I pretty much want it to sound exactly like Hans Zimmer.” Second, for the composer, you’re not really giving them a lot of freedom. Not just with style, but with timing as well, because it’s just like, “OK, I need to squeeze the music to fit into this section.”
I like to edit my own films because I think editing has a rhythm to itself. I like finding the pace and melody in the story. Naturally, editing is so informed by sound and music. So why would you make all your editorial choices already before the soundtrack is even put in?
I was living in Korea at the time, and we did this very time-consuming and annoying process where I would cut the film till midnight in Seoul, export my latest version to them, then go to sleep. In Utah, they’d just be waking up, and while I was sleeping, they would write music to what I had sent over. And then they would send me the music and go to sleep, right as I was waking up. And I’d recut the film based on what they sent over.
Then I would be like, “wait, with the music like this, then I can cut it like this.” I would recut it and I would send it to them and they would rescore it. It was a very time-consuming process. But I think the result is that it became fluid—one wasn’t dictating the other. We’re co-writing them at the same time. Which I think is the best way for a film soundtrack to work.
BH: How do you see the films, politically then? You talked about it a bit already, but how do you see the film as an intervention?
KEFF: I hope the film can be a catalyst for the Asian-American diaspora in rethinking how they approach self-empowerment, identity politics, and cultural content.
Part of why I made the film at first was that I was personally really tired of seeing Asian-American films only about families. It felt like every Asian American film that makes it into Hollywood, whether it’s Crazy Rich Asians or Joy Luck Club, is only allowed to be about that.
I had originally just wanted to make something else as a rebellion to that. But in the process of preparing for this film, I think I came to see a direct connection with how Asian-American activism and self-identity is evolving. I think our needs and priorities are changing.
The easiest way I can explain this…I think the older generation, when they first moved to America, there still weren’t a lot of Asian people around. So Asians were seen as scary foreigners, dirty people, with horrible intentions. Men were seen as rapists and murderers, women were seen as prostitutes. If that were the state of Asian people in America today, I would have felt irresponsible making this film.
At that time, I think the progressive agenda of Asian-America was to say, “Hey, we’re just like you. We have families too. We work hard, we want our children to go to college and succeed, just like you.” And cultural exchange was beneficial in helping improve perceptions and relations. I mean, one of the easiest things that helped Asian-Americans get accepted into American was food. And I think films and other works of culture succeeded in this as well.
But I think that a new problem is emerging. Now there is sort of an opposite problem….
Our parent’s agenda was to be accepted—I don’t think my generation has that problem now. I think my generation of Asian-America’s agenda is to be respected.
So for me, I think there is another fiery type of Asian-American activism, only very new in the last 20 years or so, that makes more sense. Our parent’s generation way, was to turn the other cheek, thinking that over time, they will come to accept you. My generation is saying, “No, if bullshit is going on, I want to call it out. I want to call bullshit for what it is. I want to rise above.”
I hope more Asian-American films and art will wield a sharper blade and be more willing to directly confront bullshit and the uncomfortable. But I admittedly have a more radical stance on Asian-American activism. I just don’t think talking about it is enough anymore.
I work a lot in parody and satire because sometimes I think making fun of something is more effective than informing. I don’t think, at this point, Americans or people in the West are uninformed, or uneducated, about us. For example, it would be one thing if they actually thought we ate dogs. And they just didn’t know any better. But they know and are choosing to be ignorant about it. Which is different. So to educate them to me it feels pointless at this point, because they are educated. They’re just choosing to be ignorant. How do you combat that?
Whatever that approach is, that’s what I’m interested in. For me, this film is me experimenting in finding whatever that is.