The story behind the new short-film Dol (First Birthday) is packed with enough drama to be turned into a movie of its own.
Dol was Korean-American filmmaker Andrew Ahn’s way of coming out to his parents. He wanted acceptance from his family. He got that and, in the process, had the movie accepted for screening at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most prestigious cinema showcases in the world.
The movie, which will be shown at the Utah film festival on January 20, follows Nick, a gay Korean-American man living in Koreatown, Los Angeles with his partner Brian. When Nick attends his nephew's dol, a traditional Korean first birthday party, he finds himself yearning for a life just out of reach.
In an interesting plot twist to the making of Dol, Ahn got his parents to act in the semi-autobiographical film, although he didn’t tell them what it was about. Instead, he told them it was the story of a Korean-American male who was having an “existential crisis.”
“They were totally game,” Ahn said of his parents’ willingness to act in the film. “The fact that they were so game almost made it more heartbreaking for me because I was completely fooling them.”
Ahn said he was “super nervous” before showing his parents the finished reel.
“I got so tense, I almost couldn’t press play,” he said. “They said, ‘Just hit play. We’re going to love it. We’re your parents.’
“When the credits started rolling, my dad said, ‘Oh is that it?’ I knew at that moment they didn’t get it. It was so upsetting to me because this was the whole reason I made this film. I didn’t want to have to verbalize it. I didn’t want to say ‘I’m gay.’”
Ahn said he broke down in tears and finally told his parents.
“If I’d just taken the DVD back to my room, they would have been in total denial,” he said.
Ahn said his relationship with his parents is not easier now that he’s come out of the closet, but he said it’s healthier.
Andrew AhnKorean-American filmmaker Andrew Ahn's second work, Dol (First Birthday), has been selected to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
“They think it’s a phase, but that they’re willing to talk about it, which is about as much as I can hope for at this moment,” he said. “It was as if they were getting to know their son again. I was so happy to see that the lines of communication were open. I had a bag packed thinking they were going to kick me out of the house.”
Ahn said the Korean-American community is very conflicted about homosexuality.
“The community is very Christian. Church is a very big part of Korean-American family life. Because of the church you have resistance to homosexuality.” At the same time, he added, there are more Korean-Americans coming out earlier.
Ahn said it’s not only the church that makes homosexuality a difficult topic to address, but that the high value placed on traditional families in the Korean-American community can make coming out even more of a challenge.
“I think it’s because our parents have such high hopes for us. They wanted the American dream. They wanted a family. They wanted to put down roots in America. If you’re gay, it’s a little trickier to have a family, to have grandchildren for your parents.”
Coming out, Anh said would be “tricky and difficult” for his parents to accept. In 2008, his mom encouraged him to vote for California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
“I was so afraid. I really needed something like this film to push me through … to really motivate me to tell them,” he said.
Ahn already had experience delivering surprising news to his parents. While at Brown University, he was studying biology “like a good Korean boy” on his way to medical school, but instead graduated with a degree in English. He later felt his calling was in filmmaking and enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts’ film directing school where he earned an MFA.
His first narrative short, Andy, has screened at numerous festivals and venues around the world, including Slamdance, Outfest, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, REDCAT and MoliseCinema (Italy).
He said he’s already planning two feature-length films, both set in Koreatown.
Six months after coming out to his parents, Ahn was informed that Dol was selected for Sundance. It is one of just 64 shorts selected from almost 8,000 submissions.
“[My parents] were super happy for me,” he said. “They were kind of dumbfounded at first. [My mom] asked if I was going to meet Robert Redford, who she’s had a crush on forever.”