A Talk With Jessica Yu
In Search of Great Superficiality
I have a confession to make. Usually, I pursue interviews with filmmakers because I’ve got an editorial slot to fill and, to be honest, studios and publicists are not exactly beating down my cell phone trying to get talent bookings with us. Sometimes that leaves our content stream a little thin, and a good talk with someone is better than no talk with anyone at all. At times, that ends up feeling a little like an editorial fishing expedition. I’m not sure how it works for our readers. If web page stats are any indicator, though, we’ve hit some pretty good home runs that way.
In any event, when I saw Ping Pong Playa, I said to myself: this is a director I need to talk to. And I went after it.
Thankfully, a local publicist was able to offer the opportunity to talk with Jessica Yu, a veteran documentary and TV director who makes her feature-film debut with a low-budget but delightful comedy about a self-important loser who has to defend his family’s honor… by winning a ping pong tournament. My review of the film ran here at PtP last week, and I couldn’t recommend it enough… given certain reservations and qualifications.
But the humor in Yu’s latest effort is infectious, and it’s unilaterally good-natured, a far cry from the SNL-school of comedy that’s become dominant this decade.
Oh, and did I mention the central character of the film is Asian American? Don’t let that get you thinking this is just some niche comedy. Audiences of all stripes should love it.
So here’s the transcript of my fifteen-minute talk with Yu over the phone.
In the director’s statement for Ping Pong Playa, you remarked that Better Luck Tomorrow “demonstrated that an Asian American film could be simultaneously daring, commercial, socially relevant, and above all, entertaining.” Hopefully, those are traits that could be true of all films; why did you feel that was a necessary remark to make about an Asian American?
Jessica Yu: Well, maybe the first thing in that list should have been that the film was also commercially viable! I’m not really suggesting that there haven’t been other Asian American films that have done that, but I think that was the first one that demonstrated to a wider audience that it could be those things. Maybe that’s the clarification that’s needed.
Sure. But aside from commercial viability, what do you feel has been lacking from Asian American films?
JY: Well, this is kind of dangerous territory, because I don’t want to suggest that I’ve actually seen all Asian American films that have come out. But I would say that when you go to Asian American film festivals, there are a lot of really good films; but they do tend to be on the heavier, dramatic side. A lot of them—although this is changing somewhat—have been quite earnest in tone. So we were looking for something that was maybe a little more irreverent and a little more subversive. And also something that was filling that void of great, superficial comedy in Asian American film. That’s one thing that’s been missing.
I was going to ask about that. In an interview with CineVue, you commented about “a terrible need in the Asian American film world for superficial comedy.” What do you consider some great superficial comedies as precedents?
JY: Oh, gosh. Well, you can see this film in the grand tradition of sports comedies. There were certainly some things that we wanted to take from that tradition; but at the same time, I think we were a little more tongue-in-cheek about it. But if you look at the original Bad News Bears, it really is quite subversive. It’s a little bit dark, and Walter Matthau’s character has a drinking problem. We didn’t quite go there; but that’s something that one could dismiss as a “superficial comedy.” But there’s a little weight to it—so I guess we’re being a little tongue-in-cheek when we say “superficial.” But it’s a popcorn movie.
I think some of the more recent comparisons in that sports comedy genre would include Dodge Ball and Blades of Glory.
JY: Oh, yeah. But we didn’t want to go so over-the-top. Our model was the original Bad News Bears, much more character-based. So that was one unique thing we felt we could bring to this idea—authentic Asian American characters taken from our experiences growing up, and give it a level of detail, bringing things to life that way.
Yes. When the film was promoted to the press in the Seattle market, I was actually very dubious about going to see it, just based on the synopsis. As a smaller film, it wasn’t high on everyone’s radar, so the press kind of had to pick and choose, and decide whether or not to cover this one—based on the film’s description. And given what’s been happening with those sports films lately, and the directions that they’ve taken, I wasn’t at all thrilled with the idea of going to see an Asian American ping-pong version of Blades of Glory. So I passed, initially. But when I heard that Cherry Sky was bringing it out, and that some of the same people from Better Luck Tomorrow were involved, I thought, “Well, I’m going to give this a shot”—because I was very impressed with Better Luck Tomorrow. So I requested a screener, and I was very glad I did see Ping Pong Playa. It was hysterical. It blew me away.
JY: That is so great. Yeah, I think sometimes when people write about, “Oh, here’s the latest sports comedy,” they tie it to whatever the latest movie in the genre was, even if the new movie isn’t trying for that. But I think that when you see a lot of the sports comedies now, there’s a lot of elevation of whacked-out goofiness. But it’s not necessarily pleasing audiences. But people are going, so I guess maybe that’s part of the trend.
Were you a little dismayed when you heard about Balls of Fury coming out while you were already in production on this?
JY: Yeah. To be totally honest, I was initially a little bit perturbed. But then I thought, “You know, whatever they’re doing is going to be so different from what we’re doing.” And also, the other thing is that movies always come out in these little groups. I don’t know what it is. If you said you were going to be making a film about tiddly-winks, I swear someone would come to you tomorrow and say, “Oh, you know what, there’s two in development.” You can’t use that as a reason to change what you’re doing. But then when we saw Balls of Fury, we could go, “Oh yeah, this is totally different from what we’re doing.” So we really didn’t worry about it.
Well, I described the central character of Ping Pong Playa, C-Dub, as “a Chinese raconteur who’s equal parts Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Charles Barkley, and Larry the Cucumber.” Jimmy Tsai, who plays C-Dub, is an accountant. He can’t possibly be the same kind of guy that C-Dub is. How different is he from the character that he plays?
JY: Oh, my gosh. Well, this is the thing that is amazing about Jimmy, because I did meet him as the production accountant for Cherry Sky—didn’t know that he did anything on the side. Just polite, professional, very very nice—to the extent that, when I saw these mock commercials that he’d made for his fledgling sportswear company, I didn’t recognize him at all. I’d met Jimmy a few times, and I’m watching these things going, “Who’s this guy? He’s hysterical!” And it was only afterward when they brought him up there that I realized, “Oh my God, that’s Jimmy!” So that was a few years before we started working on Ping Pong Playa; and I just had this idea in my mind that of course he could carry the film, because he had inhabited that character so completely. It was one of his alter egos—but it did take a certain amount of convincing everyone else that he could do it.
You described the character in your director’s statement as “smart, profane, buffoonish, and hilarious”—which is absolutely right. One of the most original characters I’ve seen in a comedy in a long, long time.
JY: Oh, that’s so great. I love the fact that— Earlier, we were talking about Asian American cinema. With this character, you can also make fun of the way that this character—as a slacker—uses his Asian American-ness as both a shield and a bludgeon. And that enabled us to poke fun at the hypersensitivity of Asian Americans, at different times, to what they see as racial slights; and I thought, “If we can do that, we also have license to make fun of a lot of other things”—at the same time while not going off into total mean-spiritedness.
Yes. I found your description of the minority experience in America kind of interesting. You talked about Jimmy helping out during production—his “whatever it takes attitude, whether it was “vacuuming the office, designing props” or still handling payroll and writing cost reports—as “model minority behavior in action.” And it strikes me that the sort of attitude you’re describing used to be American behavior—“whatever it takes. ” And yet that’s associated in your mind with being a “model minority.”
JY: Well, that’s the “model minority” stereotype—Asians being, you know, the model minority: an ethnic “Rushmore” syndrome, where you’re a member of every club, and you do well at everything. Like in Jimmy’s case, he’s a very nice Chinese boy. So again, that’s a very tongue-in-cheek thing. But it’s funny; if you look at Jimmy, he did all the model-minority stuff: being very good in school, being the head of all these different clubs. But of course there’s this other side of him, where he wanted to go into film and study other things—but ended up majoring in business! And it’s interesting that that seemed kind of like a model-minority compromise; and of course his family is very pleased about what he’s doing now.
I guess that tension is very nicely explored in your film, then—the tension between model behavior and real behavior, what people really find interesting and valuable in our culture. So you’ve hit the nail on the head in exploring a theme that’s not just there in minority culture, but across the board.
JY: Yeah. I think you’re right there. One thing, too, that was fun to explore was that C-Dub has this perfect brother who is the “real” model minority—but he’s not perfect, either. He’s got some personality issues, plus the fact that as soon as he gets into a spat with his brother, he’s completely pulled down to C-Dub’s level. So the model-minority myth is a myth. It doesn’t make anybody a perfect human being. So there’s something there that’s universal, especially in immigrant families who want to push their kids toward something that they perceive as “safe.” And that’s not necessarily something that the kids want, especially if they are born and raised in the U.S.—and that’s not what they see around them.