HBO is marking the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by giving one filmmaker some significant exposure.
Monday, the winning entry from its inaugural Asian Pacific American Visionaries short film contest, will bow across the premium cabler’s platforms May 1, after having received its world premiere last Friday at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, along with second- and third-place finishers Wonderland, from Tiffanie Hsu, and Toenail, from Jingyi Shao.
Directed by Dinh Thai, whose family fled Vietnam during the war and settled in Temple City when he was seven, Monday follows a day in the life of Kwan (Kevin David Lin, making an impressive acting debut), a young hustler who runs contraband — drugs, weapons — all across Los Angeles. As he bikes from setting to setting, his fluidity and ease in making transactions between groups as disparate as Latino gang members and wealthy white partiers reveals the chameleonic identity of Asian Americans.
“I have friends in different pockets and neighborhoods, and they’re all very diverse. Personally, this is sort of my life,” Thai tells The Hollywood Reporter, coyly declining to elaborate on the inspirations for the more illicit aspects of the story. “Putting those situations together in a short is very satisfying because it gives Kwan an opportunity to shift his personas, which is a huge reflection of what many of us do. I switch the way I speak to people, depending on who they are and who they think I am. There’s an analogy there as well as to who we are as minority filmmakers in Hollywood. We want to have a strong voice, but not everybody’s ready to hear it, so we have to make a little shift just to crack the door open a little bit.”
Heady themes, but seemingly seamlessly conveyed by Thai, whose kinetic style and knack for apt musical choices easily pack a wide range of locations and interactions into the 19-minute film and keep it zipping from start to finish with rhythmic energy.
When asked about Monday’s inspirations, Thai first half-jokingly responds, “Friday,” then offers up a few more cinematic influences: Goodfellas, Whiplash and Beverly Hills Cop. “Axel Foley does this transformation everywhere he goes to get through, to get by, to get in, to get what he wants,” he says. “When I saw it as a kid, it made me laugh. But as an adult, I understood the sociological implications of how one has to transform themselves to succeed. It heavily influenced our decision-making in how to portray Kwan.”
Monday is Thai’s first narrative work since graduating from Pasadena’s Art Center with a BFA in film in 2002, having spent the years since in commercial directing. He rekindled his passion and motivation to create his own art after one of his best friends, Josh Falcon, invited him to start a production company together, Art and State. “That was the pivotal moment in making this short film,” Thai says. “Us combining our skill sets, starting the company, making content for ad agencies, constantly working and practicing. When I was making advertisements, in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I’m practicing for the big game.’ That’s what led up to this.”
Thai is modest, or perhaps pragmatic, about his career pursuit. “It’s still early in its infancy. I don’t even feel like I’m in the filmmaking industry at this point,” he says, although the quickest mark of progress following his contest win has been signing with managers at Echo Lake Entertainment. They, along with Stone Village Pictures producer Dylan Russell, a friend of Thai’s, are interested in developing Monday as a potential television series, and Thai is eager to further explore Kwan’s world.
But if faced with the all-too-common scenario of an interested network requesting a change to the protagonist’s ethnicity, what would Thai do?
“I would have to say, ‘Thanks for your time and we’ll see you on the next one’,” Thai says, taking a beat.
“Oh, you want to know what I really want to say?” he laughs. “’Are you out of your fucking mind?!’ The subtle nuances are what makes Kwan’s character work. I think the attraction of the character is that he’s universal, but from a filmmaking standpoint and out of respect to the lead actor and all the instances in my life where I had to deal with something like this: Sorry, but he has to be Asian.”