Interview: Hyun Lee on Asian Girls and the benefits of diversity in film funding

Earlier this year, we sat down with Hyun Lee, the director of a short film called Asian Girls which screened at SXSW in Austin, Texas and then at the Sydney Film Festival. We talked about the making of the film, working with Rainbow Chan, and the benefits and importance of diversity in film funding.

It’s a jarring film visually and musically, so appropriate to be screening as part of the “Midnight Shorts” program here at SXSW. I’d love to talk about your collaboration with Rainbow Chan, who worked on the music as well as co-starred in the film.

She didn’t quite make the music for it. I worked with a producer for it, who’s based in Seoul. I actually don’t know much about her except that she’s a young, female producer who makes music under a lot of different names. We found each other on Instagram, and I just heard her stuff and thought it was amazing. And Rainbow is more cast, but everyone also knows she’s a musician, so she came in to do some vocals for one of the tracks. It’s featuring her, not a Rainbow Chan original.

Still getting my head about the film, what can you tell to introduce it?

A lot of people do ask the “what does it mean?” question. Or “Why did you make it?” and I always say, “I wanted to make a film called Asian Girls so that when guys look up on Google “Asian Girls” for porn, they find this instead.” Which is partially true. It’s not untrue. And I hope that answer doesn’t get old!

And you really just want to fuck with their brains…

I mean, I just think it’s funny *laughs*. And it is sort of about that. What it is to be an Asian girl. What does that phrase mean? It means a lot of things. And the first thing that does come up when you look up Asian Girls on Google is porn. So that’s one of the things. And I do think it’s a sexy little horror film, so I don’t think it’s inappropriate to suggest that. If this was a little family drama called Asian Girls, I don’t think that would go down well.

I see a couple of references to other horror films here, especially in the way you approach the score. Were there any particular films you used as a reference point?

You know, I don’t actually love horror films, very much at all. But I did watch them growing up, because I’m Korean and Koreans love horror. It’s more sort of like going to Church when you’re a kid. You’re just sort of made to do it by your parents.

By your parents!?

I mean we don’t religiously watch Horror films, but I grew up watching them because they were culturally part of my family’s life, or part of what it is to be Korean… I wasn’t watching them because I love them. Sure, I had The Lion King on tape, but I also have A Tale of Two Sisters, which is a classic Korean horror film. Like I saw that when I was 6 years old, and that was burnt into my memory. It’s really fun to make a horror film, but I’m not a horror nut by any means.

It’s not like this is a slasher thriller or anything though. You’ve gone for the more “mind fuck” approach.

Yeah. I don’t even know what it is. I made it, and then at the cast and crew screening like six months later, I was just like “wow, this is a really weird film… I didn’t realise how weird this was. Why did nobody tell me? At any stage? This is a really weird film.” In terms of mind fuck, I don’t even know. I’ve seen it too many times, it’s not even anything to me at this point.

You may also introduce audiences to some new foods in the film.

Yeah, I mean I was introduced to new foods while making it. Like I’m Korean by heritage, but I grew up in Australia and I’m pretty whitewashed I reckon. I don’t speak very much of the language. For instance there’s a Century Egg in the film, which a lot of people aren’t familiar with. It’s a very Chinese thing. It’s a fermented egg that’s black and green on the inside, and it looks pretty scary. And when you look up really close – and you don’t see this so much in the film which I was really bummed about – but some Century Eggs have a snowflake pattern on the surface of it. They just look really like dinosaur eggs or something. But they’re just regular chicken eggs that have gone through a process. And they taste like boiled eggs with a bit of a weird after taste. Anyway, I was really freaked out by them the first time I ever saw it. Even Asians get weirded out by other Asian foods. And then there’s a steak tartare in the film, and just food in general can be disgusting to what it is. So there are a lot of reasons we have the particular food choices in that film. I hope it’s a bit of food porn.. food slasher porn. Food kink fetish porn. *laughs* It’s very PG rated… it’s not that bad.

Yes let’s be clear, in spite of your desire to topple porn from the top of the search engines, there is no actual porn in this film.

Yes! There is zero slasher porn in this. Just a bit of food porn. It’s very safe for work.

Just don’t play it too loud at work! And you had some Create NSW funding for the film?

Yeah, we applied for that in 2016, that was the emerging filmmaker’s fund, which they’ve had since forever. So we got that round. That particular year they opened it up to only female directors. I’d only made one short before that so I pounced on the opportunity. I’m really grateful for it, because I probably wouldn’t have bothered to try being a filmmaker if that sort of opportunity wasn’t open to me. For someone outside of the film world, you do look in and ask “how do I even begin? There’s no space for me”. When you do try to put your foot in the door, it is a boys club. So I am really grateful for that. It’s opened a lot of doors for me.

One thing I’ve noticed at SXSW this year, is the sheer number of female filmmakers across the board, even the blockbusters are showcasing first time female directors.

There is a big wave that’s responding to TIMESUP and all those movements, but when we applied for funding, that came before all of that. This has been an issue for so long.

And Create NSW isn’t the only organisation that has tried to address that in recent years. Represenation. Not just female directors but indigenous too. Because if the opportunities are there, people will make films! It’s really exciting. Film is at its most exciting when new voices are being heard.

Yeah, to me it’s very straight forward. You have films being produced, and they should reflect the population, and for a long time, it simply did not, and that’s all there is to it. There’s all that political element to it. But at the end of the day, it’s simple: you’re recifying a very simple error. Having said that though, I do feel like it’s a very hot time to be a female filmmaker of a diverse background like I am.

You’re ticking all the boxes!

*laughs* Yes, there were *literal* boxes to tick on the application for funding. And I ticked a lot of them. I think there is a value to having to assets. And when you start applying economic terms to it… because people say there’s an audience for female films because if 50% of the audience is female, and you can look at it in economic terms, because if it’s just a “hot trend” to be an ethnic or female director, then that trend might drop. But diversity in filmmakers shouldn’t exist because it’s profitable, but because it’s the right fucking thing to do. It shouldn’t be justified because of money, it should be justified for common sense. And even if female filmmakers didn’t make money for whatever reason, they should still be making films.

You don’t see white males barred from making films just because they’ve made films that have bombed. And they have made a lot of films that have bombed.

Exactly. I can make a few shitty films out of spite too! *laughs* No, No I won’t.

What are you working on now? I have to imagine the road out of this short, coming to SXSW, is opening some doors for you?

A lot of doors have opened and I’ve come here with a project in the works, so that’s been realy good timing, in that I’ve been able to tlk about what I’m doing next, which is a feature film that I’m writing at the moment, and I’ll be working on the script as soon as I get back from SXSW. And just the amount of people I’ve met in all aspects, not only career opportunities, but mentors, fellow filmmakers, I feel like I’ve met some people who will I will have a meaningful relationship with. We’ll keep in touch for years I feel. It’s not a one off encounter where you are given a heavy piece of wisdom that you fly away with. It’s an ongoing thing. I am grateful to death to be here. It’s really cool.

And hopefully this won’t be the last time you come to SXSW

Oh yeah abslutely! It would be sick to come again. I’m having a really great time here.

Find out more about the film at its official website.