Friday, May 16, 2014

Pretty Rosebud Breaks Free

"O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy."

-- The Sick Rose by William Blake

As you might have guessed from the above invocation, today's blog is penned not by our illustrious columnist, but by his friend Nancy, whom Jeremy has graciously permitted to be a guest contributor.

Keeping in harmony with the themes and spirit promoted in Theme for Great Cities, the subject on which I am writing today is Pretty Rosebud, a new movie written by, produced by and starring my very dear friend, Chuti Tiu (The Internship). Pretty Rosebud won numerous awards at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, including Best Film, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. On May 18, Pretty Rosebud will be screened at the Cannes Film Market (Marché du Film).

Chuti and I first met in the mid-'90s, when we were across-the-hall neighbors in Los Angeles. I liked her from the start. A recent New York transplant, I tried to get in and out of my apartment unseen. This went on for a matter of weeks. Eventually she intercepted me. Introducing herself with the same beautiful smile that had persuaded the state of Illinois to give her a title, Chuti handed me a UPS box containing some kitchen items I'd purchased at Bloomingdale's for which she had signed. I then met her tortoiseshell cat, Diva, whom Chuti had rescued from abandonment.

On getting to know her, I learned Chuti was kind and friendly to everyone -- even this half-crocked, ill-tempered old woman in our building whom the rest of us avoided. I also learned Chuti was a feminist and a Northwestern grad, and that she had recently moved here herself from her native Midwest. With a shared love of cats and a fondness for Frangelico, she and I became fast friends. So now that she is starring in a new movie, I am helping her to spread the word.

Pretty Rosebud is the story of Cissy, a woman who is enduring, rather than living, a life. Like the subject of Blake's poem, her exterior beauty masks a corrosive interior pain. In Cissy's case, the pain is caused by her inability to express how she feels. To the outside world, her life seems perfect (handsome husband, good job, loving family). The reality is, of course, quite different. Yes, her husband is a looker, but being out of work for two years has made him depressed and withdrawn. Yes, she is successfully marketing an up-and-coming politician, but his consistent advances are wearing on her. Yes, she has devoted parents, but their incessant pushing their "Rosebud" to "have little rosebuds of your own" is irritating at the very least.

Why doesn't Cissy bonk the womanizer over the head, kick her husband in the butt and tell her parents to F-off? Because that's not what good girls do, certainly not those from a strict, Asian, Catholic household. Such girls do not speak out, unless it is to the family priest (indeed, the confession scenes are some of the best in the movie).

In Cissy's case, she instead acts out by having extramarital affairs. Not soft, gentle sex: Sweaty sex with a guy who works in her office building -- in his car. Gritty sex in the locker-room after a kick-boxing lesson with her instructor (played by Chuti's real-life husband, actor Oscar Torre (The Hangover Part III), who also directed the movie). The story is how and if she can break free of the repression, of the self-loathing; in short, to become a rose that is not sick.

The movie left me with a lot of questions, so I sat down with Chuti for an interview. Here is what she had to say:

It was hard for me to watch this beautiful woman in such pain. Did you want to make people uncomfortable?

"One of the things I hope people understand are Cissy's and Phil's [her husband's] avoidance tactics. He sleeps, plays video games, gambles. She acts out sexually, but her form of acting out just as easily could have been shopping or alcoholism. She takes no pleasure in it; it comes from an angry place. The first time, okay, maybe fun, but cheating becomes more and more unpleasant to watch.

These are two people on a path that is totally diverging; they're similar but both lost. They aren't reaching out to each other anymore. She tries in the beginning, but he doesn't respond. Had he reciprocated, there'd be some hope. At least they'd still be playing. But if the balls just drops... It's a very uncomfortable place."

So many of Cissy's problems come from men hitting on her. Most women don't have that problem. Do you think unattractive women can relate to Cissy?

"I hope so. I'm not sure. I have faith in women in general -- women feel each other's pain more than men can. The situation is that Cissy's miserable, and she's in an unhappy marriage -- that's something I think a number of women can relate to. On top of that, she's the sole bread-winner and feels as if there's too much responsibility placed on her shoulders; that's something that both men and women can relate to.

And I don't think everyone has to have the same experience to relate. A friend of mine who is gay saw the movie and told me that he was a 'recovering Catholic.' He'd been told all his life how being gay was wrong, which made it so much more difficult to come out. Regardless of age or gender, everyone needs to find their true calling. It's about finding and listening to your gut."

You're a former Miss America contestant and America's Junior Miss. You once told me that due to your pageant training, you felt you couldn't be yourself around people. You couldn't speak your mind. How much of Cissy's repression comes from your pageant background?

"One percent. Ninety-nine percent of it was being Asian.

Pageants were a great vehicle for expression of what was already there. Always put your best foot forward. No matter how bad the situation, you must set an example. That is part of the Asian culture as well. It's about proving yourself, about excelling. Being Asian in the Midwest was also an issue. There weren't tons of us, definitely not commonplace. I felt the need to prove things to prove that I fit in."

Oscar mentioned at the premiere that it was important to make Cissy likable.

"We worked at that. We did things like cut out moments where she cried, because she couldn't cry throughout the entire movie, even though she was in a lot of pain. We didn't want her to look melodramatic."

Did you like Cissy?

"I want to say yes. I felt sorry for her and her pain, the growth she needed to go through. As an actor, I don't choose to like or dislike my characters. I don't want to judge them.

A friend came up to me after one of the screenings, and she couldn't stop crying. She said that she saw so much of her life: her family, her culture and its drama and secrets. I told her that I wrote the story for people like her, so that her story could be shared, and that other people could listen."

Why make this movie now?

"I couldn't have made it sooner. With new technology, we were able to shoot the movie in 2011 for a lot less than if we'd done it ten years ago, even five years ago. We shot it on the Canon 7D and 5D over sixteen days. I started writing the script as a stage play in 1999 and converted it to a screenplay in 2001. Plus, I didn't know the people who helped me to make the movie back then. I met our producer Rebecca Hu in 2009, when I was working on a documentary called I [heart] Hollywood, which is about actresses wanting to make their dreams come true."

Having made the movie, how do you feel now?

"After principal photography, I had a huge sense of self. This is a milestone that I had to accomplish to be happy with myself. Now that I've gotten the first film under my belt, making more movies is less daunting. I'm excited to keep creating."
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