Interview With “American Fusion” Director Frank Lin

Collin Chou, left, plays Tony, brother to Yvonne (Sylvia Chang) in "American Fusion." (photo courtesy of the AAIFF)
Collin Chou, left, plays Tony, brother to Yvonne (Sylvia Chang) in “American Fusion.” (photo courtesy of the AAIFF)

A divorced Chinese mother meets a single Mexican American. It’s a simple multicultural plot line that can easily conjure tired regurgitations of ethnic jokes involving family, relationships and culture. But thankfully, “American Fusion” is a ferociously funny film that takes a very fresh look on love through a comedic and creative twisting of stereotypes.

The stellar cast includes veteran actress Sylvia Chang, Esai Morales (formerly of the “NYPD Blue” television series), James Hong, Pat Morita and even Fabio. Chang plays Yvonne, a journalist who endures an awkward first encounter with dentist Jose (Morales). As their friendship predictably blossoms, Yvonne’s personal path is anything but predictable. She is torn about how to deal with potential reactions by her family members, whose respective idiosyncrasies pester her from every direction, then collide when her mother (the hilarious Lang Yun) is hospitalized.

The 18-day shoot felt like a “vacation” for first-time feature director Frank Lin, who also co-wrote the film. Lin, a UCLA graduate, has other projects down the pipeline, including a film that he wrote which will be produced by Harvey Keitel and is scheduled to star Joan Chen and Sammo Hung.

Following the East Coast Premiere of “American Fusion” at the New York Asian American International Film Festival, Lin spoke with Meniscus about the making of “American Fusion,” his own family and…Fabio.

How did you get Fabio involved?

I wrote the role for Fabio, and we spent about three months looking for a look-alike, and then finally got so tired of it that the casting director just said, ‘Why don’t we send [the script] to his manager?’ We sent it. He wants to be in every film I make from now [on], so it’s really cool. He liked it.

He’s really cool about himself. He’s one of those guys who is just very easygoing. He read the script, and he laughed and he thought it was a great place for him to materialize.

I thought the film was great. It’s interesting because it’s an Asian American film, but yet you bring in stereotypes from African Americans and Hispanics. How did you do the research into that? Is it from personal experience…in interracial relationships and so on?

Yeah, I have a lot of Hispanic friends and I have three really good African American friends. I just remember from personal experience, but also a lot of things just from hanging out with friends. There are things that [are] racial that always come up…walking down the street, you could see people moving to the other side just because I’m walking with a black guy. He’s just walking next to me, he’s kind of big and people just move. It immediately makes you realize, okay, there is something inherent just from seeing the person.

The great thing was, I remember I was in San Francisco with my mom, and [there] is a homeless guy…he’s kind of smelly, he’s in really tattered clothing, he’s black. He stood next to us and we were talking in Mandarin, and he joined in the conversation. And he had no accent. He says, ‘Yeah, I spent 10 years in Taiwan. I studied Mandarin,’ and he’s a professor. My mom almost jumped from one side of me to the other side because it made me realize, you cannot judge any book by its cover. You can’t judge that person by [just] seeing that person until you really talk to him. So that’s sort of where it came from.

That makes me think of the scene near the end where the son comes home and he has a [non-Chinese] girlfriend. They all expect her to be Chinese and she speaks perfect Mandarin.

That’s really funny too because when I first showed the script to the guy who played the son – he’s Korean American (Randall Park, who plays Josh); the script is supposedly Chinese American – he tells me he reads the script and says, ‘You know what, I have the exact same problems that you do…I was trying to date a black girl and my parents almost killed me. I had to hide her. I had to pretend that she was Korean for the longest time.’ So it was really one of those things that we went around and said, well, what if we join forces? I have my part of the story and you have your part, so let’s make the girl African American. We knew the best actress (Karimah Westbrook, who plays Layla) that was our friend, so we cast her.

You were talking about how some of the characters are based on your experience with your grandma. Did you bring any of your own personal experience? Do you see elements of yourself in any of the characters?

Yeah, it’s very funny because when I wrote the first version of this movie, the son was very critical of his mother. That wasn’t me – [I] was exactly the opposite. My mom was divorced and it was a very personal story.

When the Korean writer and actor came in, he sort of helped me change the character. I got really nervous because it came really close to my relationship with my mother, but then I sort of embraced it. I wrote that scene at the airport, which was something I always wanted to say to my mom. My mom has been traveling a lot [since] when I was a kid, and there was something I always wanted to say to her because as a divorced woman, she always feels like she is responsible for me and any problems I encounter. I always wanted to tell her it’s okay, it’s not her fault. So it gave me a chance to write that scene.

In reference to a scene in the movie that involves a family meal: Then, of course, the slap over the head. That happened to me as a kid. I just remember my grandma hitting my uncle and saying, ‘Don’t hit him over the head,’ and I was thinking, ‘You just hit him!!’ It’s one of these moments that I just stole right from my family.

Living, growing up in an Asian American family is like a comedy in and of itself.

I think it is a comedy. And then we see the Simpsons, and all these dysfunctional families.

I feel like there’s a big weight that has been lifted from a lot of Asian Americans because we have somebody like Wayne Wang and Ang Lee ahead of us making those films. It allows the next generation to be kind of goofy. We can just make anything…You don’t have that responsibility like there is only one Asian American film out there so you have to express [and] represent for every Asian American. You can just represent yourself and say, ‘This is my taste.’ That’s where I’m so glad, at my position, where I am…

At this point, as opposed to maybe, a decade back…

Yeah, even like two decades back, you know, with [playwright] Frank Chin.

Finally, have your family members seen the film and how did they react?

Yeah, they saw the film. They laughed a lot and they said, ‘This family is funny! They’re kind of dysfunctional.’ They did not recognize the family. My grandma saw the grandma. She’s like, ‘That grandma is pretty funny. She’s a good actress.’

If only she knew.

I was talking to Sylvia Chang – she had the same response. She made a movie where she played the mother figure [who was] just like her mom. Her mom didn’t see it at all.