High-profile film industry guests visit UC Santa Cruz

Hollywood film director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election), actress Sandra Oh (Under the Tuscan Sun, Arli$$, Double Happiness), and groundbreaking new Asian American director Justin Lin have each paid a visit to UC Santa Cruz in the past two months as guests of the campus Film and Digital Media Department.

Lin, voted one of Variety's "Top 10 Directors to Watch" after the release in 2003 of his first feature film Better Luck Tomorrow, appeared on campus early in June for a special screening of his movie, as well as hours of discussion and interviews with students. The appearance was made possible in part through the persistence of L.S. Kim, assistant professor of film and digital media at UCSC, and Clifford Yee, program coordinator of the campus Asian American/Pacific Islander Resource Center.

"I teach a class called Asian Americans and the Media, and we study Lin's film because he is one of the most prominent and contemporary Asian American film directors working today," Kim noted. "He's incredibly busy right now-working on two studio films for Disney and Universal, developing a film with Spike Lee, working on an independent project for MTV, and he even just did a pilot at Aaron Spelling's request. So we were very lucky to get him."

Lin's debut feature was the first film acquired by MTV's new distribution company, MTV Films. It first received recognition at the Sundance Film Festival where it sparked a controversy over its unusual portrayal of Asian American characters as amoral role models. The film depicts a group of high school students who appear to their classmates and teachers as model students, but in reality lead double lives as edgy, freewheeling participants in a darker world of crime and material excess.

"Lin's film speaks to one of the issues we explore in my classes," Kim said. "Asian Americans are usually stereotypically portrayed as good students who are well-behaved. But to see Asian Americans who are smart, but seriously out-of-control, is threatening. It really throws that model minority myth into turmoil."

A culturally diverse mix of nearly 200 students also had the opportunity to view a separate 30-minute video documenting Lin's struggle to get an independent film distributed about Asian Americans.

"I can count on my hands how many Asian Americans have recurring roles on television, and there are virtually none that have lead roles in Hollywood movies," Kim noted. "Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow is the first film in 10 years since Joy Luck Club to feature Asian Americans as main characters."

Students questioned Lin about everything from issues of race in the film industry to the difference between working on independent and studio films. At one point, Lin noted that the entire budget of Better Luck Tomorrow was equal to just one day of shooting for a typical Disney studio film.

"He was a very gracious and generous guest--he answered questions right down to the very last student," Kim observed. "Lin is at an extremely exciting point in his career right now, and it was truly special to watch him interact here on campus."

In May, Kim and associate professor of anthropology Nancy Chen helped coordinate visits to UCSC film classes by noted director Alexander Payne and award-winning Canadian actress Sandra Oh. Payne received much acclaim for the Reese Witherspoon/Matthew Broderick comedy Election in 1999, and recently directed Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates in the 2002 film About Schmidt. He visited UCSC classes in screenwriting, American film history, and production, where the professors also showed clips of his work.

"Payne talked about making the decision to work in Hollywood as an intern or production assistant versus concentrating on your own projects to create a career," Kim said. "He really encouraged students to pursue their own specific goals and spoke about how he got to where he currently is in his career."

Oh, who recently played Diane Lane's best friend in last year's Under the Tuscan Sun, fielded questions from a class studying Canadian cinema after a screening of her first feature film, Double Happiness.

"All three of our recent guests showed the students a great deal of respect by responding to them directly as future filmmakers," Kim noted. "I think that really affirmed and encouraged the students in the pursuit of their careers."