Harry Shum Jr.: 30th SF International Asian American Film Festival
What does Linsanity have to do with the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival? To hear Harry Shum Jr., a cast member of “Glee” who grew up partly in San Francisco, it’s about opportunities.
For Jeremy Lin, it was a chance to come off the bench and star for the New York Knicks after two other teams, including the Warriors, gave up on him. For Shum and others of the young generation of Asian American actors, it’s the chance to get big roles not necessarily pigeonholed as Asian.
“There are ways to get opportunities,” Shum, 29, said. “You have to create ’em. This role (on ‘Glee’) wasn’t written for an Asian American. I had to create something out of nothing. I didn’t have any lines, any story. Over time, I had to create the character myself. … We’re able to play all these characters. Just give us the opportunities.
In love with the story
“I think that’s why everyone is so in love with the Jeremy Lin story, which I am on the bandwagon as well. That’s a perfect example – I can really relate to that when I saw that, it made me emotional. … I felt the exact same way (as Lin): Give me an opportunity, and I’ll be prepared for it.”
Shum is one of two bright young Asian American rising stars in the festival opening-night film, “White Frog.” The other is 18-year-old Booboo Stewart (“The Twilight Saga”). They represent the new, multitalented generation (both also dance, and Stewart also is a singer-songwriter). Veteran actors Joan Chen (“The Last Emperor”) and San Francisco-born B.D. Wong (“Law & Order: SVU”), who play Stewart’s parents, are part of the generation who helped raise the profile of Asians in film and television in the 1980s and ’90s.
And that’s a big part of the SFIAAFF’s mission statement: opportunity for Asian Americans. The festival is packed with emerging talent, from Richard Wong’s locally shot romantic comedy “Yes, We’re Open” to Mye Hoang’s Vietnamese American debut film “Viette” to Akira Boch’s L.A. comedy “The Crumbles,” to name a few.
No one knows that mission statement better than “White Frog” director Quentin Lee, who went to UC Berkeley and credits the festival as instrumental in his success as a filmmaker.
“Almost 15, 16 years ago I had a short here called ‘Matricide’ that was in the emerging filmmaker’s showcase, and I had ‘Shopping for Fangs’ here (in 1997) – and I’m coming back 15 years later to world premiere my latest feature here,” Lee said. “So I have a long-standing relationship with the festival.”
“White Frog” is a big opportunity for Stewart in particular. He is the main character, Nick, a teenager afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Nick, mourning the death of his brother (Shum) and at odds with his parents (Chen, Wong), seeks refuge with his brother’s friends.
“It was a really difficult role,” Stewart said. “I never worked so hard in my life! But it was the best time I had on a film set. We became like a family, helping each other, and not just the cast, but the crew as well. On the ‘Twilight’ films, they’re big productions, it’s a little impersonal. You don’t get to know the crew, for example.”
Difficult, perhaps, but Stewart nailed the role – not easy when, as a character with a form of autism, you have to keep your emotions in check.
“He really impressed me,” Shum said of Stewart. “I’ve known him for awhile. I remember when we did a music video, back in the day. But him coming from the ‘Twilight’ world – I thought he did a great job with the role.”
Lee said, “Booboo Stewart is the most supportive actor I’ve ever worked with. When he did the film, he was 17, but he was so mature. He worked really, really hard and was a dream to work with.”
Chen, who is 50 and is the subject of a spotlight retrospective at this year’s festival, said she took her 13-year-old daughter, Angela Hui, to the “White Frog” shoot so she could be an extra and rub elbows with young up-and-comers.
“We had the vampires, the ‘Glee’ people, all these kids – they’re just lovely kids,” Chen said. “I expected ‘movie-set’ kids. Harry Shum is so humble and so handsome.
“Actually, I was really surprised – they’re so together! When I was their age, I was so messed up! They’re not messing around, and they’re good. … When I was much younger, I wasn’t as hardworking.”
Both Stewart, who is half Asian, and Shum said that while their work in independent Asian American projects is vital and fulfilling, they hope not to be limited by their ethnicity.
So much to do
“There’s so much I want to do,” Stewart said.
“I have to do something where it’ll make me feel like it wouldn’t matter what my race or color is,” Shum said.
Stewart, Shum, Chen and Lee are scheduled to attend the opening-night screening Thursday at the Castro Theatre followed by a gala party at the Asian Art Museum.