In an economy in which 85 percent of students in 2010 planned to “boomerang” back home after graduation, recent UCLA graduate Kevin Ung instead moved across the globe last week, alone, to Hong Kong, to pursue the unstable career of filmmaking.
While studying abroad at Hong Kong University during his third year, Ung applied for a student film competition, the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival, and was one of 30 filmmakers at the festival to receive a grant of $5,000 to make a film; he was the only non-Chinese citizen to do so. His film, “Chubby Can Kill,” which he wrote and directed, received special mention at the festival and since has qualified for numerous other festivals in California.
“Chubby” will be shown at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Friday night at the Sunset 5 theater, where it has received a Programmer’s Pick and Jury Award nomination. “Chubby” also qualified for the Los Angeles New Media Film Festival May 20-21.
“Chubby” is a comedy about an overweight video store clerk bullied by local gangsters, until he attempts to defeat them by emulating his favorite movie heroes. This underdog story appears to mirror Ung’s pursuit of a career in film.
“It seems to be the trend in my life where people tell me I can’t do this … but I do it anyway,” Ung said.
Despite what validation of his talents the success of “Chubby” has garnered, when Ung applied to the UCLA film school, he was rejected. He said he was devastated.
“I was really surprised,” said William Chau, Ung’s roommate at the time. “But even that didn’t stop him from pursuing what he loves the most, and it’s really inspiring.”
According to Ung, ethnically Chinese himself, Oscar-winning Chinese director Ang Lee is an inspiration because Lee also chose entertainment over a more culturally respected, financially secure vocation. Ung entered UCLA as a pre-medical student, a path his parents preferred him to pursue, but he switched to English and greatly enjoyed it. He even named his betta fish after 17th century author John Milton. However, he said his desire to pursue film developed more gradually.
According to Chau, despite Ung’s lack of formal training, it was apparent during one of Ung’s first film shoots that he had immense filmmaking intuition and creativity, and he even found a way to shoot the entire film using an old, cumbersome, flea market tripod.
“We filmed it in our room,” Chau said. “And that’s when the blood happened.”
For a murder scene, Ung tried to simulate blood, so in one take he successfully splattered a mixture of food dye and corn starch ““ all over their bedroom wall.
“We had to live with that stain for two years,” Chau said. “But (he) managed to come out with a good product.”
Ung said Hong Kong taught him what it really means to be a director: to have the confidence to remain true to his own ideas.
“(In Hong Kong) ideas came like lightning,” he said. “There are so many filmmakers in Los Angeles that you can run out of oxygen … Hong Kong is a breath of fresh air.”
Annie Lau, the assistant director of “Chubby,” said Ung’s ability to make a movie told entirely in Cantonese ““ a language he did not speak ““ attests to his talent and ability to lead people. She said Ung picked up some Cantonese profanity, a release she thought was good for the eye twitch he developed over the course of shooting.
“He really impressed me, because he had some really solid plans,” said Deland Nuse, Ung’s film professor. “He’s always been interested in Asian cultures, and I think that it was a really good choice to go directly (to Hong Kong).”
Nuse said students need this type of passion for their chosen careers: While deciding whether his psychology doctorate program was the right path, Nuse forced himself not to see a single film for a year. At the end of the year, he saw five films in one day.
“I knew where I needed to go,” Nuse said.
Ung said he does not see Hollywood filmmaking or its tendency toward cliched happy endings as the pinnacle of success, and he admires the creativity of foreign films. He refers to Hong Kong films from the 1980s, which often end tragically and abruptly.
“I thought, “˜Wow, you can really end a film like this?’ You wouldn’t see this anywhere in an American screenwriting textbook,” Ung said. “These guys have guts.”