The on-air story:
The AFI Dallas International Film Festival has been importing Hollywood glamour to North Texas with glimpses of movie stars and red carpets. But among the 230 films it presents this week, the AFI also has a Texas Competition, a juried selection of local films. The category includes gritty, first-time dramas and documentaries about small-town, Lone Star life.
Then there’s one entry in the competition, a film by a Dallas resident, shot entirely in Dallas. The director-screenwriter is a gay, Malaysian-born, 33-year-old Chinese named Yen Tan — and he’s given his film an Italian title: Ciao.
Adam Neal Smith and Alessandro Calza in Ciao
In Ciao, Jeff’s friend Mark dies accidentally, and Jeff [Adam Neal Smith] discovers that Mark was expecting a visit from Andrea, a young Italian man Mark knew only through e-mails. Jeff tells Andrea [actor and co-screenwriter Alessandro Calza] to come to Dallas anyway, and they spend a weekend coming to terms with their loss.
If all this doesn’t sound like stereotypical Dallas, that’s partly the point – as Andrea discovers on the ride from the airport in this scene from Ciao:
Andrea: This is not what I thought it would be like.
Jeff: What’d you expect?
Andrea: Cowboys in the middle of the desert.
Jeff: (Snorts.) Maybe a century ago.
Andrea: It’s definitely very different from New York. Even LA.
Ciao is primarily about grief and gay friendship, but it’s also about differing expectations – and about Dallas. Yen Tan:
It does bug me to see films in Texas where it’s really Texan, really loud, really in your face — the Texan character with the Texan accent, the boots and hat and everything, That bugs me because I don’t think it’s really accurate, because it’s not really like that here.
The distance between Dallas’ reality and the image visitors expect is a familiar experience for many Dallasites. Now we encounter that from a gay, Chinese perspective. In Ciao, Dallas is a town of isolated individuals in grey rooms, in modern restaurants and apartments. The film is atypically Texan — it’s small, somber, very composed and very quiet, clearly inspired by European art-house movies.
While growing up in Southeast Asia, Tan certainly enjoyed noisy American movies. But the Hollywood films he saw were often different from the ones we did. Malaysia is a Muslim country, and censorship there doesn’t even permit kissing onscreen. Imagine how R-rated thrillers like Basic Instinct get chopped.
Tan: A friend of mine went to see it and said don’t bother because it was like half an hour long (Laughs). So that gives you an idea how tough it is.
A graduate of Drake University in Iowa, Tan moved to North Texas 10 years ago for a job in advertising. Ciao is actually his fourth independent film. His previous one, called Happy Birthday, was successful enough on the gay festival circuit, and Tan hopes at least the same will be true for Ciao.
Tan: I always tell myself that maybe the next film I shouldn’t do any gay content anymore because it’s easy to get pigeonholed in that category. But in the end, I think I came to terms with it and told myself that I would explore subject matter that means something.
Would Tan have come out as a gay man if he’d stayed in Malaysia? Would he have become a filmmaker if he’d never seen Dallas? Yes, he says, although both developments would have happened more slowly.
But the truly important thing about coming to America? It was, he says, getting to see films from the French new wave and Hong Kong cinema. It was coming to America — to find out he didn’t have to make typical American movies.
Ciao screens Saturday at the Magnolia as part of the AFI International Film Festival.