Back By Popular Demand, YES, AUNTIE! Is A Kung Fu Cinema Love Story If There Ever Was
The animated signature logo for the team at Art School Dropouts – or as filmmaker Joey Min calls it, the team’s kamon – is no stranger to the big screen among film festival regulars. Aside from this, it bodes considerably that the kamon now etches a milestone in Min’s progression, representing his New Jersey-based independent film banner since officiating his brand in 2016.
Heeding fans who’ve pined for more of his hit webseries, My Asian Auntie, fans are cordially invited to take a gander at Min’s newest continuing oddity, My Asian Auntie: Season 2 – billed otherwise for his feature film debut henceforth as Yes, Auntie!. Several interesting footnotes here reside next to the homage it lends in its presentation, nodding to legendary producer Sammo Hung’s Corey Yuen-directed 1985 actioner, Yes Madam!.
By resilient design, a once recalcitrant Hung eventually land a protégé in actor and aspiring stuntman, Robert Samuels, whose tenacious roller coaster efforts to be endorsed and inducted into the Hong Kong Stuntman’s Association by the release of Hung’s 1995 film, Don’t Give A Damn, is a tale still told proudly to this day.
Samuels has since held his ground with a roster of independent series and short projects stemming from his R4 Films, LLC banner in recent memory. Thus, in lieu of what would become one of the most formidable partnerships in today’s generation of martial arts action filmmaking, the DNA between Min and Samuels strings even closer with Min’s own Sifu having once worked under Samuels years earlier.
That bookmark in history now culminates Min’s long-winded efforts into cinema since picking up a camera at the age of fifteen, turning a page to the newest chapters of his art-driven career trajectory and life in whole.
The inaugural action and humor, following a vigilant overhead drone shot of the landmark Pagoda in Reading, Pennsylvania, hosts a taste of things to come in various departments for Yes, Auntie!, with Min starring and serving multiple functions to his credit as writer, cinematographer, producer and action director.
Cross-dressing as a caricature that turns an Asian stereotype on its own head is Min in the role of Auntie, a wise, old Asian lady for whom songs of praise had been sung in the media as the local kung fu crimefighting heroine of Voorhees township in New Jersey.
Auntie is far removed from the hype despite her actions, nary paying any mind to matters disparate to the upkeep of her simple, idyllic lifestyle with her Niece (Stephanie Pham), all while often mitigating the unrequited affections of her kung fu equal, the infatuated and ever-pursuant Sifu Sharif (Sharif Anael-Bay).
Going forward, little does our grey-haired, distinctively beared heroine know that the threat Auntie thought she dealt with beforehand would soon be realized as only part of a larger criminal network. Later on, Niece gives chase to would-be burglars, initiating a fortutious meeting of minds and kung fu mastery between Auntie, and Momma (Robert Samuels), the no-nonsense head of the New Jersey division of the DEA with a pointed finger that means business, and an epic slap-hand that executes to walloping perfection.
Momma, as it turns out, has a serious bone to pick with Lester (Leroy Nguyen), a gun-toting, cat video-addicted, pompadour-wearing, drug-peddling gangster weary of his withering influence over Voorhees with fellow criminal cohort, Jefferson (Robert Jefferson) feeling the pressure.
Having heard the tales of Auntie’s heroics and ultimately seeking and acquring her help, Momma leads the charge with Auntie, and with Niece in tow, to investigate Lester’s criminal activity as it pertains to selling illcit drugs to local elderly retirees. Their investigation leads them to an MMA gym where they eventually square off with its owner (Hector Soria) and his squad of lackeys.
The fracas rewards them with a tip that inches them a little closer to clamping down on Lester’s empire, all while an increasingly furious Lester decides to act out plans of his own with the help of hammer-wielding douchebag assassin, Angelo (Angela Jordan). With lives at stake as Lester’s retaliation draws violently toward Auntie’s front lawn, Auntie has no choice but to take the initiative, and take the fight to Lester in one final stand.
Subject to the usual harrowing hurdles of independent production, thankfully Min and Pham have become the kind of team that’s planted itself firmly in its bearings with a knowledge of logistics and timing in the course of production.
From there, it’s all generally downhill when it comes to crafting the essential action and comedy – both being two of Min’s strongest suits; There’s hardly debate over whether or not films like Yes, Auntie! are meant for a specific kind of audience, although that’s not to say that he’s not eyeing the hopes of growing his audience in the first place.
Regardless, Min is invariably in his element when making sure that he delivers the goods in spades, largely leaving it to viewers to decide what it is they can get the most out of from the film, and this was quite the proven experiment during its premiere at the Museum Of The Moving Image on Friday evening.
During the tail end of the post-screening Q&A segment, one audience member stood at the mic to state that he’d come freshly to the premiere unknowing of Min’s body of work or what to expect aside from his own criteria of film enjoyment. Alluding to the comedy, the spectator stated that he was “crying”, and the audience cheered on.
My own experience was relatively more of the same, and you’re forgiven if you think I come from a biased position about this film, although I’m par for the course to disagree on the notion that this is so simply because Min and I are good friends that I have a lean.
True, I do have a lean, but it’s less to do with ingratiating myself with the Dropouts. The fact is I’ve enjoyed Min’s work long before ever meeting him in 2015, and in screening Yes, Auntie! for the first time myself, I was all smiles from start to finish. And that smile remained throughout the composition of this review.
Syracuse-based Anael-Bey, a frequent collaborator with Art School Dropouts, is given plenty of room to dish out the comedic gags and fight scene spectacle. His character is his own 80s romcom hero, founded on that same-old underdog confidence akin to everyone who’s ever been in love with the girl of their dreams. Anael-Bey’s aptitude in screenfighting is some of the most outstanding in terms of kung fu choreography, and I actually hopes he gets more screentime in the next season.
Pham, also an adept martial artist who contributed greatly to several facets of filmmaking behind the lens and even having set-up and filmed much of the key action, shines on screen herself as our Auntie’s own Niece, keenly proficent in showcasing her screenfighting prowess among her co-stars. The role of Lester, played by Leroy Nguyen, lends nothing short of a boisterous, often commanding and impressive performance with the added quick of Nguyen’s own practical hair style and keenness toward gangster film lore.
Despite having no lines and reliant on mostly gestures and physical acting, Jordan’s role as the nimble and deadly Angelo is worth its weight in gold from the second the character steps foot into the Yes, Auntie! arena. Fans who’ve followed Art School Dropouts on YouTube would easily fall in line if you polled them on Jordan being one of the most top-tier action performers among today’s crowd of creatives, and even moreso going forward this year on her own channel.
Bookending the action scenery throughout are film the combined efforts of Team One Take Action Design, Kamen Ramen Studios, Rising Tiger Films, Team Red Pro and Samuels’ R4 Films, L.L.C. with the pivotal MMA gym brawl serving as the film’s first big action sequence by the halfway point. There’s even a tag team element between Min and Pham here that makes for a nice little cherry on top.
Of course, with any good martial arts movie, Min caters to moviegoers with a full scale fight finale with all the requisite trimmings. The film already has your heart racing within the first five minutes, but you’re inclined to pace your breathing as the fight action reaches its climax. Some of the most supercharged action you’ll see stems from watching Pham and Jordan command the floor and you’d swear you were watching an 80s Hong Kong thriller by this point.
Before you know it, you’re watching Nguyen, an artist inspired by the forefathers of kung fu cinema, trading blows with the Sammo-approved Samuels, undoubtedly resulting in one of the most riveting, semi-whimsical and laugh-out-loud fight scene finishes you’ll ever witness (remember what I said above about Momma’s finger and epic slap-hand).
One look at Min’s channel is all you need to convince yourself that Min isn’t someone who falls short on his homework. Indeed, he has his own flavor, but not without the larger goal in mind, and especially when trying to live up to the expectations set by his own creative peers around the U.S. – people like Eric Jacobus (Contour), Fabien Garcia (Die Fighting), Reel Deal Action (Plan B), the aforementioned Nguyen (Black Scar Blues) and even Dennis Ruel (Unlucky Stars) come to mind re: their own feature film debuts.
Was it easy for them to make their movies? Nope. Are they still making movies? That depends on what they can accomplish in a period of time and depending on the scope, vision and resources at hand, and if they have the physical acumen needed to perform the kind of demanding action caliber sought to entertain audiences.
Just ask actor, local professional fighter and stunt performer, Kamen Ramen’s own Gee Javier who gets some post-credits screentime as he’s laid flat during a fight scene take in the MMA gym scene (SPOILER ALERT: he’s okay), or even Nguyen who spoke during the Q&A adamantly about how he toughed out having his arms fucked up five minutes into filming his fight scene with Samuels, a Hung Kuen expert whose own arms, as Nguyen insists similarly with any cadre of kung fu professionals, are “built like tree trunks”.
Joined by his loyal club of multi-faceted artists, that Min, one of the most modest, humble creatives with minimalist tendencies, was able to galvanize the talent he has says something about how much his peers and fans believe in him. Min only ever requested ten dollars for his recent Kickstarter just to say “thank you” to his fans, and instead, managed to collect upwards of more than $600 dollars to do so much more for his latest cinematic laboring of genuine love, including organizing a pizza party with the cast and crew to record a commentary, as well as commission a poster artist for a series of character posters that were signed at the premiere by the cast and even hopefully purchase some extra equipment.
This, juxtaposed next to the reception he received for Yes, Auntie! at the premiere, begs asking just what exactly is love, if not this? Granted, the screening was among peers mostly peers, although taking into account the newly-installed spectators now vigilant of just who exactly Art School Dropouts are, it’s fair to say that this feature debut is a victory hard-earned and won ten times over.
For all intents all intents and purposes, Yes, Auntie! is a by-and-large signature kung fu action comedy that packs a punch. It’s got humor that resonates with palpable characters that will grow on you, and incisive, thrilling and exhilirating fight choreography and lensing that aims straight at the heart of the average Hong Kong cinema fan.
In that sense, you might even see this as a sort of subversive allegory on the practice of men doubling actress in Hong Kong movies like Armor Of God or Righting Wrongs or even She Shoots Straight; It’s a nice little touch on the nostalgia of it all while the film doesn’t take itself seriously having cast men for the lead roles in unabashed Madea fashion, and coupling with a vision founded originally on taking a joke about select tropes derived from certain cultural and soceital mechanisms and then throwing kung fu and romance and family in the mix.
If anything, Yes, Auntie! exudes how art works a lot of times, and as a result, you get something like this that can stand on its own – a little independent movie made with love by a group of creatives who love what they do, backed by film community that loves its own, and embraced by watchful eyes of kung fu fans who love what they love. And for those who don’t yet know how much they’ll love this movie, all I’ll say is that while not all forms of art are for everyone, either way, Yes, Auntie! certainly obliges.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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