Geneva Anderson digs into art

Director H.P. Mendoza chats about “Fruit Fly”

March 13, 2009  San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Geneva Anderson and H.P. Mendoza at PFA, Berkeley

Geneva Anderson and H.P. Mendoza at PFA, Berkeley

 H.P. Mendoza, director of the 2006 indie hit “Colma: The Musical” is back with a new musical, “Fruit Fly,” which premiered on March 14 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.   The film was shot in HD in San Francisco’s Castro and Mission Districts over a three week period and brings back Colma cinematographer Richard Wong and leading lady-songstress L.A. Renigen.  Mendoza has outdone himself with 19 original songs that go down smooth but often pack a lyrical wallop.  The story tracks Bethesda (Renigen), a twenty something Filipina adoptee-performance artist who has just relocated to San Francisco and moved into a communal artists’ crash-pad in the Castro. She is searching for a venue for her next gig while flirting with searching for her birthmother.   As soon as Bethesda befriends gay roomie, Windham, and steps out into her new neighborhood, she is labeled a fag hag.  While she doesn’t take kindly to labels, she’s not really sure who she is, how she fits and where home is.  Her journey is one of gradual empowerment:  she gets a voice and learns what family really means with a few twists and turns along the way.  I had the opportunity to chat with H.D. Mendoza about his work just before the world premiere of “Fruit Fly” at the Castro Theatre on March 13, 2009.

G.A.:  What importance does the adoption theme play in the storyline and what inspired your decision to create Bethesda as an adoptee who is grappling with her identity?  Do you have any personal experience with adoption? 

H.D. Mendoza:   I not sure if it’s sign of where I grew up, or of the times, but for some reason, it turns out that a lot of my life-long friends found out they were adopted and went through all sorts of emotions and it’s something that I became very familiar with.  The film is based on my experience and that of L.A. Renigen, who plays Bethesda, who actually is a performance artist and who actually has two families, two sets of parents.   I won’t tell her story for her, but I will say that she deals with two families and lives that complexity.

I also based Bethesda off the many Korean adoptees I’ve met over the years.  I have a friend who I’ve never really asked about this, and I don’t know why, but he’s a Korean guy and his last name is German and I’ve never questioned it.  It might have come up as a joke one time but we never really addressed it in a serious way.  I think we assumed he was HAPA and that he was the only kid.  Then, we find out that he’s adopted and that he shares the same plight as all my other adoptee friends have. 

G.A.:  You mean longing for their true identity?

H.D. Mendoza:   Yes.  My friends were all told later in life that they were adopted and they all reacted differently. Some were angry that they hadn’t been told earlier and kind of lashed out like teenagers do -“Why would you tell me now?” that sort of thing.  They’re basically ok with it now though.    Others were ok with it from the get go. 

I asked one friend if she had any curiosity to find out who her biological parents were and she said no.   I asked her why not.  She said that there’s lots of information out there to be found but the truth is that she knows who her family is.

G.A.:    It seems to be an individual choice that needs to be respected.   Some people need to search and others don’t seem to need to.

H.D. Mendoza:      That’s one theme I wanted to really drive home.  I wanted Bethesda to actually utter the line, “I just want to know where home is.”   I also didn’t want make the glib point that “home is where you make it.”  That’s true enough, of course, but what if you are a person who is transient, like she is?  What if you are a performance artist who is going to end up living in different places all the time?  You are going to make family wherever you go.  Some people have it in them to keep these friendships they make along the way; others don’t.   When you have no living family that you are connected to, these connections become vital.

I actually met an adoptee who would do her one woman show but she would never talk about being adopted, never.  Instead, she only talked about who she dated and the abusive relationships she’d been in.  I asked her about that, about why wouldn’t she put adoption in her show because she is very likeable and people who go to her show would be fascinated by that aspect of her story.  She said there was no way to tackle an adoptee without becoming smaltzty.  That’s where I beg to differ.  I think you can handle an adoptee without looking and sounding like an after-school special.  That is what spurred me to write Bethesda as a flushed-out character, like I did.

G.A.:  You put a lot of detail into Bethesda’s personality…she is grappling but her awareness is growing throughout the film…It’s interesting that her art/her performance is alluded to throughout the film but only near the end do we get a glimpse of how she actually enacts this.  It was also inspirational to see how she rallied to help 17 year old runaway boy with his performance, his moment of self-actualization. It was a very moving gift she gave him. I think it’s very appropriate that you left her as a work in progress.  What options were you considering in terms of how much you revealed about her connection to her birthparents?

H.D. Mendoza:    In musicals, you often have the ingénue who doesn’t have anything in her head: she has been designed to sing and to be sought after by the musical hero.  I told L.A. Renigen that I wanted her to look like she might have been designed to be that but I also wanted it to look like the gears are turning.  I wanted her to be scrutinizing everything around her.  For a lot of the movie, it could seem like she just stands there while people talk.  L.A. Renigen nailed it and actually brought this sorrow to her performance that I wasn’t expecting to see.  There’s this scene where she’s talking about her performance art to Jacob the runaway and you see her drift off in her melancholy for a few seconds and you don’t know what she’s thinking and I think that’s great.

G.A.:  Plot-wise, Bethesda is dropped into a San Francisco artists’ residence filled with creative but struggling Asian twenty-somethings who are searching for meaning, belonging and connection.  Is this a rough period age-wise for young gay Asians?   How are young gay Asians typically depicted in film?

H.D. Mendoza:      I have more experience with young Asian lesbians than gay men.  My gay Asian male friends never spoke much about their wounding and I don’t know why.  I think a lot of that has to do with oppression and guilt in the gay community.  You go to the Castro and it’s great that we have a gay neighborhood but it is a gay white male town.  Gay Asians are often emasculated in the community, so we often have to stick together.  Lesbians going to the Castro have two knocks against them-they are female and Asian.

They’ve got it rough. 

I see Karen and Sharon, the two lesbian young women in the film, as the two who don’t have any issues with their identity at all but it required that house, that family, to get there.  The fag hags on the other hand, there’s a huge debate about what makes women, especially Asian women, fag hags.  I was talking with Jennifer Phang, who also has a film (“Half-Life”) in this festival about this.  We were talking about how when you have Asian women, or actually any women, growing up and criticizing themselves according to what the billboards say real women should be or should look like, and living in a man’s world, a lot times they get that instant affirmation from gay men.  Gay men are non-threatening, so the women feel they have nothing to prove.  The gay men don’t feel emasculated for not being able to get a woman because they don’t have to.  They come together and form this bond.  There is this certain misogyny that exists in gay culture where it’s ok for gay men to use pejoratives and make fun of female genitalia or to use names, for example, “bitch” about a woman they don’t even know.  Is that ever ok?  Not in my book.

G.A.:   That level of critical awareness is behind some of the graphic song lyrics too, right?   I was really moved, seduced, by the very soft almost Cole Porter-like melodies and then, sometimes, there would be these highly-provocative lyrics. You’re using music and lyric in a very interesting way.

H.D. Mendoza:  I’ve been criticized for this actually. At some early screenings, people actually walked out, saying it was filthy and potty-mouthed.

G.A.:    It goes down so easily and you’re left with this aftertaste of …wow…did I really hear that?  This is especially true of the song that the two men sing together but in all honestly, the words actually seemed to fit the situation very well.

H.D. Mendoza:    Well, yes, that is a song that has very graphic frank talk about sex. A lot of time, people cannot really relate unless they are frank.   If that exact kind of language were spoken between a man and a woman, that would make it into a PG-13 movie.  I am addressing that.  I am putting it right there and if you do need to walk out, then it’s probably not your type of movie.  I just saw “SuperBad,” which is a big blockbuster film, and I realized while watching it that this is 30 times raunchier than anything in “Fruit Fly” yet people are ok with it…my family, for example, loved it.  And it’s ok because it’s boys talking about teenage girls.  This is very interesting.

G.A.:    The element of provocation in “Fruit Fly” is very important as a side-theme that supports the main story and it was highly effective.   The way you use music and lyric is very unique as well.

H.D. Mendoza:  Thank you.  When you put it in a waltz it soothes you into a stupor and then when you hear the words, it kind of slaps you across the face. 

G.A.: Does the “fag hag” label tend to be a particularly burdensome for a young Asian woman?

H.D. Mendoza:     I will say that we can thank Margaret Cho for being the quintessential fag hag.  She calls herself one and does it in every show she does and she’s actually explained what that means to middle America, just in case they don’t know what that means.  And once her show was broadcast across the nation, it became a normal term, so the face of fag-hagdom belongs to Margaret Cho. 

The truth is that during Colma, we would all go to the parties and maybe 80 % of the parties we would go to, gay men would walk up to LA Renigen and tell her that she was like Marget Cho.  They would say, “Girl you are fierce,” that sort of thing.  And this is without her even opening her mouth.  After a while, it got to her.  When they would ask who she was with, she started answering that she was with the Colma crew and H.P.   They would say “Oh, you’re a fag hag.”   And she would say, “Actually, no. H.P.’s one of my three gay friends.  How can you assume that about me?”  

She would get a lot of  “oh, whatever girl, you know what you are; don’t be a coy bitch.”   And she would ask them how they could call her a fag hag and a bitch without even knowing her.

Unfortunately, that’s part of the “harmless misogyny” of the gay lifestyle which is why I am fighting for more feminist thought in the gay community. I think it’s a shame that it’s accepted to make these horribly sexist statements and that it’s ok because you are a gay man. 

G.A.:  I thought you handled that pretty well in the film through some of her comebacks.

H.D. Mendoza:     I really wanted to make sure that the lesbians got their say.  Whenever I see an example of that kind of behavior in a gay bar–where there’s one woman surrounded by all these gay men and they are calling her all these things, saying you’re this type of a cunt or this kind of a bitch and we love this and that…I am thinking that I just want her to say something back.  I want her to find her voice.

Most of the media out there make it seem like this is normal behavior for a gay man and you needn’t be so uptight.  And I am thinking, no, you should upset and, yes, you need to be more respectful.  I swear, if there were a bunch of straight men and they were surrounding one gay man and calling him a fag, it would not be tolerated.  In the best case scenario, I would love for a teenage girl out there to watch these scenes in “Fruit Fly” and realize that she can come up with her own comebacks too, as opposed to what the norm is–just excusing them and saying something like…oh you; you’re so crazy.  This is obnoxious.

G.A.: The song about the photograph is very moving–it is sung twice in the movie. It epitomizes how we as adoptees can romanticize connections, real or imagined, through photographs.    It also expresses that kind of longing that we who are searching for an unknown birth parent or sibling or child may feel.  We have the expectation that this illusive connection we so desperately seek is going to ground us and give us the direction we need.  What experiences did you draw on when you wrote that song?

 H.D. Mendoza:   It’s not about my specific personal remembrances, but all old photographs are remembrances.  My own experiences while writing that song—I often wonder where my father is.  I haven’t spoken with my father in 15 years and there’s kind of a trail off from “Colma the Musical” where you have the father who left and went away and now you have the song that addresses that.  I often do wonder where my father is and what he is doing.  Sometimes, when I would visit my mother, and my partner and I would be going through old albums, I’d find these pictures of my father and I’d get these strange nostalgic feelings.  Those feelings lingered and I often felt those feelings were my own until I went to a friend’s house and I started looking at his family albums and I thought how weird would it be if I found a picture of my father in his family album.  You know these things are ephemeral and who knows if these people are dead or alive.

G.A.:  You put a lot of thought into the development of Bethesda’s character, her personality.  There were so many moments in the film when she did things that were inspirational, for example, the ending, when she rallied to help Jacob with his performance, giving him this incredible gift.  The movie essentially closes with us not knowing what she will do with respect to her search.  What were you considering when you wrote her character and how much you would reveal to the audience about her intentions towards her birthparents and how far you’d take her story?

H.D. Mendoza:     I always know where I wanted her character to go.  How she went about getting there, from beginning to end, was a different story.  There are two camps really.  I would like for adoptees who are still searching to be able to watch this and relate to that ending which, in fact, says the journey is not over.  The film, as you might recall, starts with her landlord saying this sounds like quite a journey and she says it isn’t over yet.

There are also a lot of people who have been disappointed with the ending and are saying…who is her mother?   The truth is that it’s up to her whether she wants to keep going and to actually look for her.  There’s that.  Maybe she doesn’t have the will and the desire to do that, but the one thing that she did get out of the experience so far is the realization that, at this moment, she does have a family.  These people were doing everything in their power to support her and her performance art.  When she realizes that she is actually angering these people in the house, she decides to help out her fellow brother who essentially becomes her little brother. 

So, all of a sudden, she just clicks.  I wanted her to be in a song where she’s not the lead.  I wanted to have her organically fit with the others on stage… and everybody in the audience is also part of the song and at the very end, at the finale of the song, everyone can be seen and they are all in one pose…and that’s what she got out of it.  Where she goes from there is up to her.

 G.A.:   Can you explain how you came up with the title “Fruit Fly?  Is Bethesda the lure for these “fruity” guys who are behaving like fruit flies, swarming around her? 

 H.D. Mendoza:      I think there’s become this new awareness that “fag hag” is not such a nice term.    “Fruit Fly” is very new and it’s something that I’ve heard from a few people within the past two years.  When you look at the definition of a fag hag, there are all these negative connotations-that the woman who is too ugly to land a man so she hangs out with gay men and that she also has a sexual attraction to those gay men.  It makes the woman sound sinister.  “Fruit fly” sounds like there are these cute little bugs who just like to hover around fruit and that’s essentially where it comes from.  The other argument is that fruit flies hover over rotten or overly ripe fruit, but that’s for another movie. 

My point is that people will always try to pigeon hole you and to label you because it makes them more comfortable.   You may be offended by this, but there are dozens of other labels out there that you can consciously choose to adopt. Actually, I would love for someone to challenge “fruit fly” too because labels should always be challenged.  Labels are at the core of our identity. 

I have friends from college who are proud fag hags and I mean they are really proud of that…but no one actually knows their names.  They go to these bars and they can be a fag hag with big hair and just hide behind that.  I am not saying this is wrong because there are a lot of characters in the bar scene but to just be a character defined by a label is very limiting.   With the film title, I wanted to kind of draw people in and have them thinking this a film about a fag hag and, at the end, have them realize this is a film about identity and home.

G.A.:   Speaking of home…Bethesda has lost her adoptive parents and her only remaining connection to her adoptive family is through those telephone conversations between her and her Filipina aunt.  Those conversations were touching and very real.  As adoptees, we frequently have to manage relationships where people don’t fully understand what we are struggling with. 

H.D. Mendoza:     Yes, that was my way of tackling the idea of the villain, which tends to be written a certain way.  The villain is generally the older aunt or some older authority figure.  Why is this always black or white?  What would happen if the person who was the villain actually came to her senses?  It does happen you know.  Maybe some of these villains are ignorant and once they are educated, they do come to their senses. I wanted to have that sense of humanity to her.

G.A.:   Interesting… in therapeutic terms, the villain is that person who carries the negative projections.  What I’ve experienced as an adult adoptee is that you are always managing all these relationships with people (relatives or friends) where your adoption and their awareness and sensitivity and understanding is a factor.  This can be about your search or your emerging relationship or lack of relationship with a sibling or birth mother…sometime these relationships become triangulated and very complex.  You don’t see them necessarily as villains but you hope for compassion and for them to have empathy for how complex and draining it can be.   In the film, we know that Bethesda’s adoptive parents have both died and that this aunt in Manilla is her birthfather’s sister.  He is dead and her birthmother is missing, so this aunt is represents her blood family.  This is really important to an adoptee.

H.D. Mendoza:  Yes and this aunt, who is another time zone, is really trying to love her, along with annoying her.  It’s really very human. 

G.A.:  What’s your next project?

H.D. Mendoza:  Well, it’s not a musical.  And I’m probably not going to be doing another musical for quite some time.

G.A.:  Pigeon-holed?

H.D. Mendoza:   Yes.  There are other stories that I want to tell. I have this pile of scripts that I’m developing and I can see very clearly that the next musical is at the bottom of the stack, 5 scripts down. 

Right now, I’m working on a non-musical dark comedy about Prop 8, which is set after Prop 8 passes.  It’s about a playwright who was told that Prop 8 was never going to pass and, as soon as it passes, he goes wild with anger and writes this really angry play about Prop 8 and alienates his partner in the process.   It is a comedy and I know it sounds very heavy, but Prop 8 is very heavy.

March 15, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment