Q&A: Jason Tobin - Jasmine

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Hong Kong actor and producer Jason Tobin talks to Arthur Tam about his new psychological thriller Jasmine and why he decided to come to Hong Kong to make films

You hear it all the time when people come to our city in search of an ‘authentic experience’. They’re looking for something distinctly ‘Hong Kong’. But, really, what does this mean in an international city which is post-British, currently Chinese and filled with different subcultures that each, in their own right, contribute to our greater society as a whole?

This notion, however, is what’s driven Jason Tobin to be an actor in HK and to be part of his latest movie, Jasmine, which premieres on March 25 at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film is a dark psychological thriller that follows Leonard To (Tobin) on a downward spiral of destruction after his wife is murdered.

Tobin co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the new English-speaking film, and besides the basic plot, he’s out to make films that reflect a diasporic experience in our city featuring characters like himself – a bi-racial, Hong Kong-born, international school-educated actor who lived in the USA, has lived in London and also speaks fluent Cantonese. It’s all about shedding new light on being part of a multi-cultured, mixed society.

Tobin is probably best known for his role as Virgil Hu in the critically acclaimed 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow (BLT), which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. It was primarily about teenage angst, crime and material excess, but what struck people most was the all Asian cast, which is somewhat like finding a unicorn in American cinema. It was a big hit at the time, yet it was up for inappropriate remarks. Tobin recalls a reviewers comment. ‘You guys obviously know how to make a movie, but why make a movie that makes your people look so terrible.’ Your people… In other words, unless minorities fit within stereotypes, people get confused. 

Fed up with these sentiments and pigeon-holed into token Asian male roles, Tobin returned to our city to do something different, creating his own niche movies that portray a different side of HK – not entirely local, but very Hong Kong.

Nice to meet you Jason. So, Jasmine. Why did you want to do a psychological thriller?

The director Dax Phelan and I were particularly inspired by director Lodge Kerrigan, who did the movies Clean, Shaven and Keane. We were inspired by those films in the sense that the stories are very character driven, with the main character going down this destructive path. They make you question if what they’re seeing is true or not. Cinematically, we were inspired by the Dardenne brothers.

What was the most challenging part of this film?

The film is almost all shot on location, which is quite difficult. If you look at other indie films shot in Hong Kong, you notice how hard they try to manage the crowds, so they don’t look into the lens. We were able to manage, though.

And you are naked too...

I know, right? A few weeks before the shoot, Dax sent me a photo of Harvey Keitel in The Piano where he’s butt naked. I thought he was joking at first, but he was actually serious. So I was like ‘why not?’

What else are you working on?
I have another film coming out that recently got distribution. It’s called Number One Serial Killer. You know the blaxploitation films in the 70s? This is like Asian-sploitation. Very tongue-in-cheek and a parody of an angry Asian man. It was previously titled Chink. It’s funny. At the Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival, where it premiered, I won the best actor award. When I received the plaque, it read ‘Jason Tobin, Chink’. 

Even though you’re half white?
Which makes it even more ironic. Dax and I are also working on a script about two down-and-out Asian-American actors who go on a pilgrimage to Bruce Lee’s grave. I’ve also produced a film called Stories Forlorn. It’s about ‘gui zai’ (white) kids in HK and set in 90s as they’re growing up in international schools.

Sounds personal...

When I was in America, I wasn’t American enough. When I was in Britain, I wasn’t British enough. And when I’m in Hong Kong, I’m not Chinese enough. After a while working in LA, I thought ‘why not start making my own films?’ At the end of the day, I’m an Asian in a white world. If people aren’t going to write roles for me, I’ll have to write them myself. So, for me, I want to do something different that involves the English speaking subculture in HK. That’s what interested me in making films here. I already know what foreigners are going to say after they watch Jasmine. Like, ‘they speak English over there?’ Hongkongers are going to watch the film and think ‘expat kids are spoiled brats’. So I want to temper people’s expectations – and mine as well.

Has a lot changed in terms of being an Asian actor since BLT?

A lot has changed, but there is pressure to represent your community in the right light. I find that hard because I like playing non-heroic roles. I like playing the bad guy. I want to represent my community as being a good actor, not by the characters I play.

Jasmine premieres Wed Mar 25 at HKIFF; hkiff.org.

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