courtesy of Palm Pictures
Kim Sung and Ernest Chin form a tenuous friendship in Michael Kangs debut film, The Motel.
By Noah Fowle
Michael Kangs directorial debut, The Motel, is the type of small film that will make audiences both happy to have found it and sad that many others may not. A hit at this years Sundance Film Festival, Kangs inaugural work is an honest, comic and melancholic examination of adolescence and the Asian American experience.
The inspiration for the film came from a combination of Kangs pubescent emotional scars and a short story written by a friend, Ed Lin, who later extended his work into the novel Waylaid. The film is really loosely based on the book. I hoped that putting it in the credits would inspire people to pick it up, explained Kang, who also penned the script for The Motel. Ill admit I was a curious kid and found myself in similar situations as Ernest, but I really want the story and Ernests character to stand alone. I guess Ive always been a little obsessed with puberty.
At the heart of the film is thirteen-year-old Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau), an actor Kang found in an after-school program at Columbia University and quickly decided was perfect for the role. Deep in the throes of puberty, Chin puzzles over his developing sexuality while helping clean up the filth of mid-afternoon trysts at his mothers hourly-rate motel. We watch him try to make sense of his world as he leafs through his first smut magazine, playfully flirt with his crush and only friend Christine (Samantha Futerman), and fend off the taunts of a local bully. Despite the sensitive nature of the film and its seedy setting, Kang humorously juxtaposes Ernests doubt with the blatant hedonism of the hotels guests.
Kang also steers clear of grandiose emotional outbursts and instead trusts the nuances of his actors. The scowls of disapproval from Ernests mother are as true to life as Ernest fending off boredom by toying with his junk food. I always hate it when things are spelled out in films, Kang said about his style. This story is supposed to be through Ernests perspective. And for kids at this time, not everything is clear. There is a lot of misinformation.
Shot more than three years ago, Kangs grass roots PR strategy has relied mostly on word of mouth. He began to recount his travails, from patrolling the streets of Chinatown for his young lead to handing out flyers before screenings, online using both a blog (www.pubertysucks.com) and a page on My Space (www.myspace
.com/themotelfilm). Leading up to the films premier at Film Forum, he also recorded a series of podcasts to give insight into the key collaborations that made the film possible and posted them on the theaters website (www.filmforum
.org). I got a lot of advice and support from peers while making this, he said. I almost went back to school to learn a practical trade, but the turning point for me came when I asked for help. That was the biggest step for me when I found out that most people really are interested in helping out.
While touring last fall, Kang was disappointed to learn he had been left without any reservations at the Toronto Film Festival. But when a reader of his blog found out, he offered Kang a bed in his apartment. The gracious host later signed on with Kang as an intern. My ultimate goal in making art is communication and trying to build a community no matter how small it is, he said. I love that people are invested in my film. Although no one will ever love this film as much as I do, everything Ive done up to this point has been part of a group effort.