In college, I co-directed a student group called The Women of Color Caucus, a branch of the leadership council for students of color at my fairly conservative Jesuit Catholic university in New England. We put on events that dissected the objectification of women of color in music videos; hosted dynamic speakers on race and femininity; sponsored an art show supporting victims of domestic violence; led talks in dorm rooms about The Exotic “Other,” Sarah Baartman and the abysmal results when you Google Image search “Asian women.” I wore t-shirts that read “This is what a feminist looks like” and “I <3 my body." There wasn’t a questionably sexist advertisement, song lyric or comment overheard in the dining hall that didn’t make my blood boil, or incite my railing against the patriarchal society we are stuck in. The more I learned about injustice, racism and sexism, the more I saw it everywhere around me, and the more I begrudged the privileged ignorance and power that men, and especially white men, held over the state of things.
Which is why when I recently came across Debbie Lum’s film Seeking Asian Female, about a white American man’s quest to find his perfect, exotic young bride from China over the internet (cue eye roll), it was with measured hesitation, assurance from trusted film friends and a few background checks on its makers before I pressed play. Why would I want to watch this older man oogle “beautiful Chinese girls” on the internet at 2am? C’mon, that’s just gross.
Stills courtesy of the filmmaker
But thanks to Lum’s masterful meta-narrative, fully aware of the tricky waters she wades into, and the undeniably compelling personalities we get to know on screen, Seeking Asian Female manages to be hilarious, unsettling, heartfelt and just plain icky all at the same time, while diving headfirst into the issue of yellow fever in a complex and character-driven way.
How could I dismiss all men with Asian fetishes as scum when here was Steven, a hardworking 60-year old in search of love, a sort of oddball with a “broken filter,” speaking very openly about his desire for a Chinese woman who will cook for him and take care of him (yes! that openly)? How could I not enjoy his goofy and sweet demeanor, or feel a pang of sympathy for him when the fantasy disappears and materializes in the form of Sandy, a 30-year old woman from rural China who as it turns out is a living, breathing, and independently thinking woman? She too, speaks openly and honestly to Lum’s camera, and you feel for her journey and alienation from anything familiar.
Stills courtesy of the filmmaker
Together, Steven and Sandy must deal with the language barrier and financial hiccups while figuring out if they’re in a relationship that can actually work. Lum is drawn in to serve as translator and relationship counselor, making her question the ethics behind her film and meditate on the ways that the filmmaking process, especially one this personal, can influence the outcome of the story. Is she most concerned about the film and her subjects’ story arcs, or the feelings of her new friends? Lum, who is producer, director, writer and co-editor of the film, is also valuable and necessary as the vehicle through which viewers like me can see themselves, and relate to the story. Through Lum’s unlikely friendship with Steven and Sandy, the audience gains access to minds you’d never believe you want to hear more from. Steven starts off being like that guy in the grocery store who stops you in the fruit aisle to make a strange joke about your nice shoes (read: RUN!), and ends up being like your weirdly verbose uncle whose opinion you value because it's at odds with most things you believe in. How did Lum come to meet him? Craigslist, obviously.
At its core, Seeking Asian Female is a thoroughly entertaining relationship story, dare I say romantic comedy, and left me with a few takeaway questions to chew on. If it works out for Steven and Sandy, does that validate his means of finding her? If yellow fever at its base is about sexualized stereotypes, domination and power, how do you judge it when the beholder gets to know the object of desire in a genuine way, and starts to see her with depth and agency? Who am I to judge what someone’s dream girl looks or acts like? Are Steven’s online dating tactics so much worse than how my friend's filter through OK Cupid? The film does not put its stake in the ground one way or another, but opens up the opportunity for real dialogue around these questions. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that for every Steven there are hundreds of disgusting dudes looking for Asian ladies for all the wrong reasons (at which we need to holla back). But maybe the next time a man compliments my dark hair or asks where I’m from with a subtle smirk of excitement, I won’t automatically condemn him to hell. But if he dares asks me out for sushi or, worse, a massage, then that’s it, it’s over. This China doll is gettin’ angry.
Before watching the full-length film, I had the privilege of meeting Lum, and asking her a few burning questions about Seeking Asian Female.
It was overwhelming and amazing. There were some really big films there, so the fact that my small film got so much attention is really amazing. And people really came out for the screenings! In Austin, I was looking for Asians but I don’t think I found them. I have to remember that in other places outside of the Bay Area, Asian Americans are much more of a minority. But the film really speaks to people on different levels.
How did this project start?
It started as a fictional screenplay about a white male and Asian female, and my plan was to include real life interviews with men I found on Craigslist who had an Asian fetish. It turned out there was just so much material with the real life men, all seeking Asian wives. With Steven’s story, I didn’t think it was going anywhere, and when it started to, part of me didn’t even want to film it. I feared Sandy was going to be a stereotype, and I had assumptions of my own and didn’t want to portray that. But my advisors convinced me to keep the cameras rolling, and Sandy turned out to be totally different from what I ever imagined.
Asian American audiences might be turned off by the topic of your film before even seeing it. What do you have to say to them?
It’s true. If I heard of a film about yellow fever, I’d probably think, “how many times do I have to hear that disgusting story?” It’s a hot button issue, but most people just glide the surface of it. My film digs deeper. A lot of people talk about yellow fever, like in Stuff White People Like, it’s a running joke that white guys like Asian girls, and usually it's just seen as “oh, kind of messed up.” But Asian American women really have to deal with it. I believe yellow fever is an integral part of Asian American identity. It’s not always the extreme we’re dealing with like western men who go on sex tours throughout Asia, but the more subtle exotification of Asian cultures. You can’t get outside of that, and it was so interesting to explore in this film. Usually when we talk about it we just get angry, but what’s that worth?
What do you want people to take away from this film? How would you use it change the discussion around yellow fever?
I did not want to simplify the story or the way it affects people. The film really drives discussions, and it gets so personal that people take sides. It’s not just man vs. woman or white vs. Chinese.
It’s currently an 80-minute film, and we’ll be cutting it down to an hour for the tv broadcast. I could really see this film being used to start conversations among ESL learners and immigrant communities. Sandy feels so isolated, and she and Steven are low-income earners, which makes it much harder on her transition.
What was it like directing your first feature-length film?
I’ve made a career editing for long-form Asian American documentaries such as A.K.A. Don Bonus and Kelly Loves Tony, and worked with great people like S. Leo Chiang and Deann Borshay Liem. Now I feel like I was spoiled having all that footage just coming to you. You learn how hard it really is, all the different ways you can set up a shot; it was a painful but wonderful process.
Seek for yourself: