Fresh from its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, Junya Sakino’s biting and hilarious comedy “Sake-Bomb” is available on Xfinity OnDemand for the month of August. A satirical play at Asian American identity and the complex cultural clashes that emerge when race, culture and masculinity are mixed together into a heady cocktail, “Sake-Bomb” is a look at identity when the gloves come off and political correct-ness is an afterthought.
A road-trip film where a “sarcastic and self deprecating Asian American” travels with his native Japanese cousin up the California coast in search of the latter’s ex-girlfriend – “Sake-Bomb” is a critical romp through the minefields of Asian American identity politics. Amplified by a stand-out performance from Eugene Kim as the hopelessly angry and angsty Sebastian – who (rightly or wrongly) thinks the world is out to get him – the film also stars Japanese actor Gaku Hamada as his cousin and foil, someone not afflicted by the seemingly torturous condition of being Asian American. Hijinks ensue.
Director Junya Sakino answered several questions about the making of his first feature narrative film.
Sake Bomb is a comedy and satire that hits on many complex issues about Asian American identity from both an insider and outsider’s perspective. As a Japanese filmmaker living in the US, what drew you to this project and making a film about cultural identity?
JS: When I moved to L.A, I was surprised to discover that there were a great number of ethnic groups as well as a colorful range of Asian Americans. I was not prepared for this and knew nothing of Asian American history. I didn’t recall any Asian American characters in any of American films I grew up watching (with the exception of a few martial arts action films that seem to randomly throw in the occasional Asian for good measure). As I’ve lived in LA and made many Asian American friends, I’ve noticed something about them, especially the way they are perceived by others. While they look like me, a lot of them don’t speak their motherland languages. They are born and raised in the States and, from my perspective, they are clearly Americans. But because of their physical appearance, people judge and treat them as more “Asians” before they are “Americans.” The notion of racial consciousness really stuck in my head and I thought this could be a really interesting subject matter for a movie.
To create this film about Asian American identity, you’ve assembled a team of both Japanese and Japanese Americans, including yourself and your Japanese American writer Jeff Mizushima. How did this team contribute to the film’s sensibility and politics?
JS: Jeff Mizushima and I went to film school together and we had collaborated on some projects prior to making “Sake-Bomb”. Besides Jeff, we also had Hiram Chan, the co-producer, and Sam Yano, the cinematographer, as our collaborators from the early stage of the project. When I came up with the concept, I knew that I needed to get more insightful inputs from these Asian American friends. Their ethnic background and perspective really helped to shape the character of Sebastian and the themes of the film. Each of us wrote a version of “Sake-Bomb” using the same concept and materials. We developed for a year and ended up using Jeff’s version of the script. Four of us spent a lot of time talking about the theme and characters. As a Japanese native, I had a slightly different point of view than they did and it was challenging to get the balance between the two different perspectives. Throughout the development process, I’ve learned a lot about Asian Americans and their cultural identities. In a sense, the whole process of making “Sake-Bomb” was cluster of culture clashes which was a bit ironic but they made the film better in my opinion. It was a true collaboration.
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Sebastian (Eugene Kim) is a fascinating, complex character, who is alternately self-loathing and boosting; someone who is deeply conflicted about his own identity and tries to conceal this, but at the same time is looking for someone to bail him out. Naoto (Gaku Hamada) on the other hand is someone who is very sure about who he is and moves through the world with a very different kind of confidence and purpose. What did you base these two characters on, and what kind of statement are you making about Asian American identity?
JS: The idea of an “Asian West meets Asian East” story was conceived from the title “Sake-Bomb”. It gave me a lot including the concept and the basic premise. I thought mixing two different drinks made a unique and fun ride. While I didn’t have any particular persons that I based the characters on, there were enough stories from what happened to us in real life that made it into the story (Yeah…it’s kind of sad.) So in a way these characters came from some of real life events. From the beginning, I knew that the two characters were completely opposite but shared the same goal, which was trying to find a true love. One may argue that Sebastian may seem a bit over the top but I believe many Asian Americans identify with the same anger and frustration as Sebastian. He is just hundred times more expressive (with inappropriate manners) than average Asians. In a way, Sebastian is an offspring of such a complex history of American society. It forces you to label yourself based on your skin color. Given the racial circumstance in the States, I think it’s almost inevitable as Asian Americans to go through identity crisis. On the other hand, Naoto comes from a rural town of Japan where his lifestyle is so simple. He is pure, innocent, and very straightforward. I thought if we put these two polar opposite characters on a road trip, there has to have some kind of chemical reaction. And that’s exactly what happens in “Sake-Bomb”.
You studied filmmaking at California State University Long Beach, and have made a number of short films prior to “Sake Bomb”. What drew you to the genres you employ in this film; the buddy film, the road trip movie, the identity film, and how did you look to deploy them toward this film which doesn’t neatly fit into any of them?
JS: I wanted to make sure that we made something beyond conventional. A kind of film that is hard to categorize. When we were fundraising, it was really difficult to raise money for that reason. People couldn’t get an idea of what this film would be. Another challenge was to make this drama into a satirical comedy. We were dealing with challenging and sensitive subject matter and knew that satire was the only option to get the point across without being preachy and confrontational.
What are you working on next?
JS: Prior to making “Sake-Bomb”, I was developing a screenplay entitled “Transience” This has been one of my passion projects for a while. I’m also working on a screenplay “Orizuru” which is the adaption of one of my short films. There are a number of other projects that I’m working on and hopefully one of them comes to a reality in the near future.