Mindscaping: Bay Area-raised Jennifer Phang calls surrealism her religion; her first feature, Half-Life is released on DVD/VOD this month.

Jennifer Phang On Half-Life and Identity

Judy Stone January 8, 2010

There have been more than enough culture shocks in Jennifer Phang’s life to imbue her with a great understanding of the identity challenges of the Asian and African American men and women in her first feature, Half-Life, which is being released via VOD and DVD from Wolfe Video and Warner Digital this month. I spoke with Phang when her film played the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival this past year and learned that was raised in Richmond and transported at age 5 to Malaysia where she felt "distance and confusion" for four years because she couldn’t speak to her Chinese grandparents on the island of Borneo. Luckily, her Vietnamese mother spoke English.

Jennifer’s father, an immigration attorney who is Malaysian Chinese, met her mother when they were foreign exchange students in Boston, married and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, but Jennifer–who is coy about her early 30s age–confesses that she is "a little reactionary about my parents’ lives." Still, she’s quick to explain that’s because for immigrants, "Everything is about getting a good foothold wherever you are." In her case it meant that as a teenager growing up in Walnut Creek, she escaped into her imagination because her parents weren’t interested in anything beyond the family’s security. "My mother, a former medical technologist, was extremely focused on establishing a safety net for us and my father was extremely strict."

She had been "about five or six" when her parents took her to Malaysia, where she attended a British international school. Later that didn’t help her feel welcome to California classmates who made fun of her English accent, resented her for getting top grades and surpassing them in math.

Nevertheless, her real interests were in film and video. She was fascinated by the work of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski whose Decalogue TV series was comprised of ten provocative contemporary dramas inspired by the Ten Commandments. She was also impressed by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

But Ang Lee was her real inspiration. Meeting him when she was "very young," she told him, "I’m a filmmaker and I love your work." He responded, "Go for it! Go all the way and do it! He was very warm and encouraging," she recalled. Lee’s The Wedding Banquet had made her realize that a film could have a dramatic line "that combined personal suffering, comedy and quirkiness in light-hearted family interactions." She met Lee after finishing her first student short when she was at the American Film Institute. Called "Love Ltd.," it was about an Asian American lesbian who was about to come out when her brother beats her to the punch, telling the family; she watches him deal with the mother’s negative reaction. It’s a comedy, she says, about "one-upmanship" because he really doesn’t know the truth about his sister.

In Half-Life’s psychological drama, part live action, part animation, Pam, the 19-year old daughter, and Timothy, the 8-year old son of an Asian American mother, try to cope with their father’s disappearance and their mother’s affair with a young white lover. In the meantime, Pam’s only friend, a Korean adoptee, trying to find some sense of individualism and self-worth, has to find a way to reveal the existence of his African American lover to his fundamentalist Christian white parents.

Asked about her empathy for the black gay character, Jennifer said, "As a queer Asian woman without a language other than English, I actually fit in nowhere. I can’t fit in with Chinese people because I can’t fully claim my Chinese identity. I can’t claim my American identity in the same way as someone who has American identities for generations and as a woman it’s hard to claim my identity in a predominantly male industry.

"An African American gay male who comes from a very homophobic community is suffering in some way and to rise above that suffering takes tremendous strength. When they do," she said, "it’s wonderful and when they find a community that embraces them, they blossom. But when they don’t, terrible things can happen. When they’re suppressing their natural sexuality in an extremely homophobic community, it can be devastating to your soul if you have one–and I believe in souls.

"I’m not a frequenter of churches these days," Jennifer said, "but I had a time in college when I was experimenting with Christianity. But it’s complicated. Because I care about the aesthetics of things, I am repulsed by the aesthetics that come with evangelical or "born-again" Christianity so I can’t embrace them. There’s better music in the African American churches. Also, as an artist you delve into your subconscious a lot and you look at the world from a lot of different perspectives. That, I think, is your job. I thought there was a very limited point of view to being [the type of] Christian who adhered to questionable principles in a Bible that has gone through multiple interpretations. You just become a follower. Period. And I’m not necessarily a follower. I was not raised in any particular religion. My mother believed in something spiritual that was godlike, but she was raised in somewhat of a more Buddhist environment and my father was from a Taoist environment. Both of them considered Christianity at times and rejected it.

"I was allowed to decide what worked for me and surrealism was my first religion."

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