BY GARY M. KRAMER | In writer/ director Ray Yeung’s fabulous “Front Cover,” Ryan (the charming Jake Choi) is an American-born Chinese fashion stylist who is proud of being gay, but feels ashamed about being Asian. He is assigned to work with Ning (the sexy James Chen), a proud Chinese actor promoting his new film in New York. The two men are “like fire and water,” with Ning telling Ryan “not to show his homo side.” But as the guys grow closer, an attraction develops that changes both of their perspectives on sexuality and ethnicity.
Yeung spoke via Skype about the themes at work and play in his terrific romantic comedy-drama.
GARY M. KRAMER: What prompted you to come up with this film and tell this story?
RAY YEUNG: Basically, there are not that many gay Asian films out there. There’s a lack of diversity. The story to me is interesting to me because a lot of the Asians who live in the West try to live in a way that suppresses their ethnic heritage. In the gay scene, Asians are low in the hierarchy. So growing up as an Asian in the West you have to act as white as possible.
GMK: “Front Cover” emphasizes national identity as much as it does sexual identity. Can you talk about that?
RY: There’s an inverted racism when you grow up where you not just suppress — but look down on — people of your own race. There is inherent racism for all ethnic minorities. To me, that issue is important. I grew up in Hong Kong, a British colony, so I looked up to things that are Western and white and suppressed my own heritage. I’ve been struggling with that all my life. I was sent to a boarding school in the UK and there were two Asians there, and it was hard to fit in at 15 and be accepted.
Those things become important as Ryan is trying to fit in. Fashion is about putting up a front. That’s why I made Ryan a stylist. He can hide his insecurities and change his image.
GMK: You have some pointed comments in your film about how Asian men are rarely seen as sex symbols or leading men. How do you want “Front Cover” to contribute to that conversation?
RY: Asians are rarely seen modeling or selling perfume. We see a lot of Caucasians with sexy and virile images. Latin men, sure, but Asian men are seen as nerdy, feminine, or weak. Asian men when they are masculine are gangsters. They aren’t seen as sexy. Hollywood movies never have an Asian man as a romantic lead. Asians are computer experts or family men on TV, which is one of the best representations. But they are never sexy.
GMK: Your camera lingers on Ning when he is shirtless. Was that to emphasize his sex appeal?
RY: Ryan is noticing a sexy Asian body and all that skin and smoothness surprises him. Asians are rarely sexy in Ryan’s mind, so when he looks at Ning, he thinks he’s sexy.
GMK: Which is good, because when the guys have sex, it’s ambiguous whose body is being shown.
RY: I think when they have the lovemaking scene, it’s not through a person’s point of view, it’s more about the union and passion that they have. I was trying to shoot the emotion that is between them rather than individual bodies.
GMK: Do you feel there is a bias or even a stereotype to portraying gay Asian characters?
RY: Gay movies are trying to fight the stereotypes so much that they move the characters away from gay guys who are camp. I think it’s more about trying to get the essence of the character. It’s dignity. Ryan is proud of what he has achieved and what he does and how he looks, even though he has shame about his heritage. The characters all have a confidence within themselves.
A lot of Asian characters in film are two-dimensional: good or bad; they have nothing to give to the audience other than that one function. I created a real character with different emotions and feelings, rather than trying to check boxes to make sure gay Asians are represented in a particular way.
GMK: Now that we’ve talked sexuality, what can you say about the characters’ nationality?
RY: The two characters see something the other is proud of which is something they are ashamed of. When we detest others it’s because they are doing something we are ashamed of in ourselves. We bring in stereotypes, but when you get to know them you understand why they do something. Ryan looks down on his Chinese culture, his parents, and the social value he puts on things — the association of anything Chinese is something he detests. Through his relationship with Ning he learns to respect Chinese culture. Ning says it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The slow curve Ryan goes through has him accepting his parents more.
GMK: The film is very stylish, visually and with the clothes and such. How would you describe your personal style?
RY: Oh, my God. [Laughs.] I don’t really have a style. I put the film in the fashion world because it’s about changing someone’s image to present them to the world, which is an interesting idea. It fit the story and the characters. I’m casual and aware of what looks good, but I don’t follow fashion much. In general I go out and I think I look good.
FRONT COVER | Directed by Ray Yeung | Strand Releasing | Opens Aug. 5 | Village East Cinema, 181 Second Ave. at 12th St. | citycinema