Filmmaker Spotlight: Chris Woon-Chen

The X1 Asian American Film & TV destination will feature “Alice at the Store,” by director, producer, cinematographer, editor and composer Chris Woon-Chen. You can find the film in the Lunar New Year collection this February. We had the chance to ask Chris about how his Asian American heritage and interests in music and hip-hop influence his filmmaking.

Image Credit: Chris Woon-Chen

Tell us about your film featured on X1 this month!

Chris Woon-Chen: My film is a short documentary portrait about my great Aunt Alice Eng, who even up to her early 90's, would venture to the pub across the street, fondly referred to as "the store". The space is where she and her husband used to own a neighborhood grocery store. The film follows as both she and her family struggle with the realities of providing for her care as she ages and her dementia progresses. We race to capture what's left as Alice reminisces about her eventful life.

Aunt Alice was my grandfather's oldest sister, and I always enjoyed taking to her because she was very chatty and engaging in ways that others in her generation were often unwilling or unable. My paternal grandfather, Alice's younger brother George Woon, passed in 2014, and I had taken part time duties helping my family with his care. I had spent a lot of hours keeping him company, but often in silence as both cancer and ongoing dialysis treatments sapped him of the strength to, and possibly ability to speak much at all. Only when necessary. I was never able to create a documentary with my paternal grandparents while they were alive, however when I moved to Seattle in 2014, I was given another chance to explore a relationship with a family elder and reflect on what it might mean for all parties involved in end of life care.

Image Credit: “Alice at the Store” Film

How did you get into filmmaking?

CW: I got into filmmaking as UCLA Asian American studies leadership intern, assigned to be at Los Angeles’ Visual Communications, supporting Asian American filmmaking. I helped out with their 2002 Asian American film festival where “Better Luck Tomorrow” was the festival opening night film. It was an especially exciting time, and I was able to see and meet Asian American filmmakers for the first time. UCLA EthnoCommunications provided guidance in how I could combine my Asian American Studies degree with filmmaking. I then went on to participate in the Visual Communications’ Armed With A Camera Fellowship to make my first short film in 2004. I owe much of what I’ve accomplished especially early on, to the opportunities organizations like Visual Communications and the Center for Asian American Media had provided me as a young filmmaker. And actually my parents, for letting me live at home while I was really still trying to figure things out.

What are some films and/or filmmakers that have inspired you?

CW: I really like documentary concert/music films for some reason, “Monterey Pop,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Block Party,” “Cruisin’ J-Town”. I’ve really been inspired lately by the entire A-Doc network initially started by filmmakers Grace Lee and Leo Chiang, the prolificness of those two on their own, then to see so many Asian American Documentary Filmmakers telling Asian American stories at a high level has been inspiring.

Do you have a favorite Asian and/or Asian American film?

CW: There’s a lot out there, and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen a lot, having worked on film festival staffs and even programmed for the Seattle Asian American film festival in the past. There’s one in particular that really blew my mind as a student, “810logy” – a short film my former UCLA classmate Eric Tandoc made about the origins of his Long Beach skate crew, really opened my eyes as to what you could do, even as a student filmmaker in the early 2000’s.

How does your Asian heritage influence your work?

CW: It's informs everything really. Filmmaking is a deeply personal activity for me, and my time is so precious to work on personal projects. To sustain the focus needed to complete these intensive projects, so far I really have to have some kind of deep stake or interests in what I'm producing. I'm interested in Asian American stories, Hip Hop, music, and lately: martial arts. I've find that if I don't have the deep interest, I struggle. Maybe this might change if I develop any kind of mastery of the form, but as much as I enjoy it, it's a struggle.

Image Credit: Chris Woon-Chen

What is your outlook on the state of Asian American cinema?

CW: I'm really excited about the current moment in Asian American cinema, living in Seattle we're more on the periphery, but to see my social media feeds stuffed with not only talk about last year's obvious big success of Hollywood, but also the amounts of my peers who are getting seats in writers rooms or working in the industry is great. And then there's still the independent scrappy filmmakers like myself and others that are continuing to share stories of our communities. Where do we all fit in on this moving forward? I'm still trying to figure out, but I'm excited for the breakthroughs. I am eager to see what kind of sustainability and growth occurs, for people to keep supporting Asian American cinema.

What’s next for you?

CW: I'm currently in early production, directing what will be a longer, "full length" documentary, about the Seattle Asian Pacific American community's response to domestic violence healing both publicly and privately from the trauma of the 1995 murders of Susana Remerata Blackwell, Phoebe Dizon, and Veronica Laureta by Susana's estranged husband Timothy Blackwell. I also just released new music under the moniker Paper Son, the album is called "The Four Year Storm" and is available in all the major outlets for streaming and download.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.