An Asian director of gay films who’s not named Ang? Meet Quentin Lee

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

LABEL QUEEN | Gay, Asian, Canadian — Quentin Lee is never sure what word best identifies him as a filmmaker.

Spike. Ang. Quentin.

There’s more than one indie directing “Lee” out there. More than two, even — three if you count the kooky spelling of Brit Mike Leigh.

When you think of Asians who make gay films, Ang Lee (who’s straight) and Gregg Araki pop to mind, but Quentin Lee deserves a spot alongside them. Although he started out as an experimental filmmaker, Lee has made notable forays into more linear storytelling, culminating in his latest venture, a charming romantic comedy with the provocative title The People I’ve Slept With.

In it, a promiscuous young Chinese woman named Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) finds herself pregnant with no idea who the father could be … and there are many, many candidates. As she sets out with her gay BFF Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) to find her baby daddy, she finds herself drawn to one of her conquests, a politician named Jefferson (Archie Kao), and debates whether to have the kid after all.

Lee will attend a Q&A screening of the film at the closing night at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, which starts July 23 with screenings at the Magnolia and Angelika Mockingbird Station.

DallasVoice: If you had to be introduced with a modifier attached, would you call yourself Asian filmmaker, gay filmmaker or something else?  Lee:That’s kind of hard. Even on Wikipedia I am listed as a “gay filmmaker.” It doesn’t bother me, but at the same time, as an artist, I don’t want to be labeled.
America has very identity-driven politics. You have to be one thing or the other. I am all these multiple identities: Asian, Asian-American, Canadian, gay. You’re always uncomfortable about being put in a box. When I started making movies, I didn’t say I wanted to make gay Asian films, just films I wanted to make. But sometimes for strategic purposes, it helps. It depends on the context.
Just like in the gay community in general, where you’re a twink or a bear. But the gay community is really interesting. Like black people appropriate the N word, gay people appropriate fag or queer.
This film could play as easily at a gay film fest as if could at an Asian. Do you find it goes between the two easily? We do both [kinds of film festivals]. Sometimes we get to screen at mainstream. In Hawaii, we were at the [mainstream] festival and came back for the Rainbow Film Festival. In certain cities, we screen at one or the other or both — in L.A., we did the gay festival and the Asian film festival. We told out at both, and had totally different audiences. We did the gay and lesbian film festival in Miami [and Asian in Dallas].

Sometimes the politics [intercedes]. The New York gay and lesbian film festival and the Asian film festival, which is in Chelsea, both want to screen it. But they say, “If you screen at the other first, we don’t want you.” They want a premiere. So you have to decide on whose giving the better [platform]. It’s unfortunate. As a filmmaker, I do both gay work and Asian work and I have to choose between the two.

My partner is Asian, so I know the culture can be a little more conservative. Do Asian audiences respond positively to the gay content or is that still a taboo?  They don’t openly say it to you, but the Asian-American audience can be more conservative. At the San Diego Asian film festival, they didn’t want to play the trailer because they thought it was too racy. One question that came at the Q&A was, “What do you say to people who don’t agree with your values?” I was a little shocked at that. But usually film festival audiences are progressive. And as a whole, this is the most acceptable film that I’ve done. Ironically, the straight audiences have no problem with girls kissing.

My favorite line is: “A slut is just a woman with the morals of a man.” Is that from personal experience? Do you think the word “man” requires the modifier, “gay man?”  First, I didn’t write the script, but I wanted to make a movie about a sexually adventurous heroine. There’s definitely a part of me in it, but I’m actually very prudish sexually! I wanted to create a fun person. I’m actually more like Jefferson.

The film on the surface resembles Knocked Up, although Angela is a lot more adventurous that Katherine Heigl’s character — until the end, when she become bourgeois.  She’s a crazy bohemian, but I’m not sure she becomes bourgeois, just more responsible. She finds a balance. I think she’s still crazy. And a lot more fun than having a prim and proper character.

Being an indie filmmaker is hard enough. Do you feel pressure to make more mainstream movies or do you think, hey, if I can’t make the movies I want to about my culture, why do it at all?  Most of my investors are heterosexual guys and when they see the first cut, they say, “Wow, I didn’t know it was that gay.” I was getting notes to tone things down. My cousin was actually an executive producer and he said, “What are you talking about? You know the kinds of films Quentin makes — it’s like investing in a Spike Lee movie and complaining it’s too black.”

You want your movie to be seen by as many people as possible. Certain stories, certain characters have an audience. I think there’s a balance. At the end of the day I want to make movies that both appeal to me as a artist. I don’t want to make fluffy entertainments, but you do want to entertain audiences. I could have just made the movie with Caucasians and hit a broader audience. But there’s something to be said with being an Asian-American filmmaker and casting Asian-American actors who don’t get to play complex roles. You want to represent your community
Wilson Cruz is always so dour on screen, but he’s never looked hotter or played a character with more light. How did you see that in him?  I met Wilson at a party and sent him the script. We liked him from the get-go. I think it definitely offered him a different profile; here he lets it out and has a good time

There’s a theme about food and sex going hand in hand? Is that true in Asian culture especially?  Yeah, like Eat Drink Man Woman. It’s something we really wanted to do — food and sex come together. Because of budget constraints there were some much more ambitious sequences, we had to scale some stuff down. But that was something we really wanted to do. Maybe in the remake we’ll put it back in!


AFFD: The gay stuff

In addition to The People I’ve Slept With, pictured, which screens July 29 cat 7:30 at the Magnolia Theater in the West Village, two other features have gay content: Seven 2 One, a Rashomon-like thriller about a crime at a convenience store with two deceptive lesbians, screen July 28 at 5:20 p.m. at the Magnolia; and A Frozen Flower, about a gay emperor and the succession of his throne in feudal Korea, screens July 28 at 10:10 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center.

For a complete schedule, visit

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 23, 2010.