Interview: ‘Lil Tokyo Reporter’ – Jeffrey Chin & Mayon Denton




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by Elizabeth Chan | staff writer

Director Jeffrey Gee Chin

Lil Tokyo Reporter is a short film based on the life of 1930s reporter Sei Fujii. It was created with support from the Little Tokyo Historical Society and Visual Communications, and grants from the California State Library, the Aratani Foundation at UCLA, and the Terasaki Foundation.  You can read our full review of the film here.

Jeffrey Chin, the director and writer of Lil Tokyo Reporter, comes at this project after working as a documentary filmmaker, where his best known work is a series of short documentaries about well-known immigrants who came through Angel Island.  Lil Tokyo Reporter is his first narrative film project.

Producer Mayon DentonMayon Denton, one of the producers on Lil Tokyo Reporter, is the owner of the production company DRG Films.  He is best known for producing the feature length documentary Love Supreme, which explores the evolution of Los Angeles Hip Hop culture.  The film notably featured the group U-N- I, which is considered one of the most successful groups to come from LA culture in recent history.

Inside AX was present at the L.A. premiere of Lil Tokyo Reporter at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena  and got the scoop on this community piece from the film’s director, Jeffrey Chin, and producer, Mayon Denton. Check out what they had to say below!

Inside AX:  How did you first hear about Sei Fujii?

Jeffrey Chin:  The Little Tokyo Historical Society was conducting research on the history of the Little Tokyo Hospital and in the process of researching why the hospital was needed and how it came about, they learned about Sei Fujii.

IAX:  So then how did you become involved with the Little Tokyo Historical Society?

JC:  I had been acquainted with the Little Tokyo Historical Society after meeting Carole Fujita, one of the founders, at the 1st Annual National Asian Pacific Islander Historic Preservation Forum.

IAX:  You’ve had other films about Asian American history as well like the Angel Island series.  How did you get into making films about this topic?

JC:  It’s my specialty.  I cover a lot of immigrant stories and specifically Asian American stories.

I grew up in Marin County where there was only a 6% Asian population and I only felt like I had a connection to my background when I spent time with my grandparents in New York.  But then when my grandfather past away, I felt like there was this history that was fading away and being taken away from me, so then I began doing a lot of research from that point on to try to document that history and started working in state parks as a docent and producing documentaries and did that series on Angel Island, which was the Ellis Island of the West Coast.  A lot of immigrants and detainees immigrated through there from 1910-1940 and so I documented their stories including that of Tyrus Wong who was the lead landscape artist in charge of flora and fauna in Disney’s Bambi.

IAX:  Do you think the general American populace would be interested in a film about Asian American history?  Why was this period of Sei Fujii’s life in particular the focus of this film?

Mayon Denton:  It’s very much an American story where like many groups who’ve come to this country, there’s a struggle to survive and adapt to life in a new country, so we think that it is definitely a relatable story to all Americans.

As far as the particular period in Sei Fujii’s life, we wanted to try to reach the broadest audience possible, so we wanted to show him cleaning up the community and his greatest commitment to his beliefs since he was willing to risk his own life to do so.

JC: It’s something they should be interested in it as it’s simply an American story.  I wrote the story and nothing about it specifically forces ethnicity or ethnic ideas and I’m Chinese American while this story is Japanese American, so I try to stay objective in terms of telling a very strong narrative about a community struggling to accomplish greater opportunities.

IAX: Since this is an American story yet has a significant amount of Asian representation in it, what do you think in general about the current status of the representation of Asians in America?

JC:  There are limited roles that we’re being depicted in right now.  That’s because there isn’t enough representation of Asians both on screen with actors and also with creatives. But all that is starting to change very quickly, especially with the influence of new media. It’s really changing everything because you can really have your voice heard, but with that, sometimes the content quality isn’t the same as with theatrical cinema.

I feel that cinema has a very long-standing value and tradition tied to people’s experience at the theatre. And by telling a story that hasn’t been told before, especially a narrative that hasn’t really been done like a 1930s film about Asian American immigrants, I feel that it opens doors of opportunity for other stories about Asians to be told.  A lot of people don’t know that Asians existed in the United States before 1960 and we need to establish the fact that there has been long-standing contributions by Asians to American society.  They even contributed to the Civil Rights Movement.  Some of the accomplishments that even Sei Fujii did changed history for a lot of minorities, like with owning land, being able to become citizens, or having a house.

It’s great that these days there are more Asian groups in America now, but it is also important to acknowledge those who came before us and what they did so that we can enjoy our lives today.

IAX:  There was a lot of use of Japanese in the film even though most of the dialog was in English.  How important was it to use authentic Japanese?

DM:  It was very important that we got it to be as authentic as possible to convey the story.  We used a lot of consultants, including Eijiro Ozaki who played Mr. Saito.  He personally added a lot to the Japanese dialog, and thought about what the characters would have really said in that time period.  By doing this, we thought it would be possible to touch people in Japan as well, as this is a story that pre-dates internment and there aren’t that many things that depict that time period.

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If you would like to be able to keep up with the latest news on the film or help with the project, please check out LTReporter.com for updates and to donate to the film.

Lil Tokyo Reporter will be making its Orange County Premiere on November 17 at the Regency Charter Centre Cinemas in Huntington Beach. Tickets are currently available for purchase.

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