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Which Way to Asian America?: The poster for Renee Tajima-Peña's 'My America'

Director Renee Tajima-Peña and 'My America...' get real about Asian America at Cinequest

By Todd S. Inoue

Documentary filmmakers strive to capture the most accurate portrayal of their subjects. When the focus of a film is as expansive as Asian America, it would be too easy and boring to include the Tigers and the Yo-Yos, so L.A.-based filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña made sure to include a few ringers in her new documentary My America (...or Honk if You Love Buddha).

Meet Yuri Kochiyama, the legendary activist whose work introduced Asian Americans to Malcolm X, who visits the town where her late son marched for justice. Say hello to the Seoul Brothers, hip-hoppers from Seattle who engage in both lyrical and physical battles. And even though most Asian Americans are embarrassed by the presence of telehuckster Tom Vu, the Cambodian immigrant is as much a part of the Asian American diaspora as perennial do-gooder Michelle Kwan.

"I thought Tom Vu was hilarious," says Tajima-Peña, calling from her L.A. home. "One of the subtexts in the film is, 'Who are we? What are we here to do? What is the role of democracy? Where do we go from here?' "

It's obvious that Tajima-Peña wanted to unearth the real Asian Americans, the ones flying below the mass-media radar: Victor Wong, for instance, an iconoclastic painter and wanderer who serves as the film's spiritual guide; and Pang Ku, a Laotian seamstress whose lesson in survival turns the filmmaker's heady subject matter into mush.

Tajima-Peña follows around workhorse "Chung Y. Choi" as he motors from his fortune-cookie factory to his fish business to his security job to his tae kwon do dojo. And there are Chinese American debutantes, UCLA activist Alyssa Kang, eighth-generation Filipinos in New Orlean and "Chung King" foods (is it really Chinese?)--all woven together by the documentor's sharp wit.

Tajima-Peña also allows her own history to emerge and add color to the film. "The whole thing of me looking at what it means to be American is a real philosophical question," she says. "Inevitably my own personal story crept in. My editor would say, 'Why isn't it in the film.' Eventually, it did become a skeletal family story. The depth of the personal thread wasn't there until the editing."

As an activist in the '60s and '70s, Tajima-Peña protested everything from Vietnam to The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Her previous work includes the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?. She is aligned with fellow filmmakers and scholars Christine Choy and Elaine Kim, but instead of engaging her subjects in debate, she plays not-so-casual observer, letting her subjects dig their own holes.

"When I started out, I wanted to make propaganda films," Tajima-Peña says. "I had passionate ideas. Once I started making films, I appreciated the gray areas of a story. It was that ambivalent area, like in Who Killed Vincent Chin?, not knowing what [defendant] Ron Ebens' motivations were, whether it was racial or a drunken brawl."

My America allowed Tajima-Peña to explore heavy subject matter--who are we?--in a humorous way. And get fed.

"When you film Asian families, they feed you," says Tajima-Pena. "Tom Vu's mother was an amazing cook. Pang Ku's spring rolls were to die for."

My America (...or Honk if You Love Buddha) plays Jan. 31 at 4:45pm at Camera 3 in San Jose as part of Cinequest '98.

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Web extra to the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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