Harry Yuan's Premiere Feature:
Cooking for Two
By Carin Chea
Harry Yuan is the type of person you'd hope to be the keynote speaker at your college graduation. Throughout our interview, Mr. Yuan often used the words "brilliant," "inspiring," "encouraging," "loving," and "phenomenal" to describe those who have made a significant impact on his life.
Yet, anyone who spends five minutes with this passionate filmmaker will attest that it is he who is, in fact, all of the above. Harry Yuan is living proof that we truly become those we surround ourselves with.
An accomplished travel host for National Geographic Asia, Mr. Yuan is also at the helm of a fulfilling writing and directing career.
He makes his directorial debut with his first narrative feature film, a musical food-based comedy called Cooking for Two that has already charmed and delighted audiences at film festivals.
Starring Marsha Yuan (Harry's sister) and Rick Lau, Cooking for Two is the story of two wildly divergent cooking show hosts who learn to love one another because of (not in spite of) their conspicuous differences.
Though a light-hearted, charming story, it is also evident that the film has a bottomless canyon of a deep, thoughtful soul, which is surely a reflection of its superb director.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
A little over 10 years ago. My mother was turning 60 and we were on a trip in New Zealand. During this time, I had made a video for her to thank her and capture everyone's love and affection toward her. That video was one of the first videos I ever made and edited. It was at that point that I realized I wanted to be in the film industry. I wanted to create.
You got your start as a filmmaker in documentaries and travel-based projects. How did your career in narrative filmmaking get started?
It started with a lot of travel-related things. It was this time of traveling and wanting to document travel. During this time, my sister Marsha was doing a cabaret show, and I thought it'd be fun to take one of her cabaret shows and make it a film. She and Rick [Lau] were the stars of the cabaret show, and they had great chemistry. That became the seed that created Cooking for Two.
I was in my 20s, and it was sheer audacity and blind belief that made me just enter into this industry. You know that age when you think you can do anything? I joke, but I say that I created this film out of sheer will. We created it out of fun and love.
Your mother was a huge influence in your life as a director. This is very encouraging to hear, especially since most traditional Asian parents don't normally urge their kids to go into the arts. Did you grow up in a home environment that naturally nurtured your artistic side?
No. My mom always encouraged me to chase my dream. I also have three sisters. My family would tell me I could do anything, but in reality, my sisters are all more brilliant than I am. I have had the honor of having three sisters and my mother all helping me understand the feminine side of myself.
My father wasn't necessarily very encouraging. He was very rigid as an Asian parent. To be encouraging in the arts is to encourage people to explore and experiment and do things outside of the box. Those things came from my mother.
Our parents' generation went through a lot. There's a generational gap, right? There was also the cultural revolution. Then, they had to flee persecution. My mother came out of a very difficult divorce. When she got the divorce, it was looked down upon by the Chinese community.
But, my mother broke through. She had to fight her way back into the acting world. In her forties. Can you imagine that? A woman doing that back then? But, from that came out a very overly-optimistic Buddhist woman. That's where the encouragement, the blind faith, and that completely unconventional way of thinking came from.
How did Cooking for Two come about?
Watching the cabaret show where Marsha and Rick worked together was amazing. My sister Jennifer wrote the script. Kevin So is the musical director of the film. He collaborated with us to create the songs and story. After Kevin came on, he brought in his writers.
My mother was the executive producer. She is the one who encouraged us to do this project. She is the one who found the money for the project and called in all the favors she could because she believed in us.
It wouldn't have happened without my mother. Every single person came into play; every single person was integral and necessary. Cooking for Two was born out of that within a year.
When it came to shooting the film, we shot it with myself, my DP (Carlo Silvio), and our 2nd camera (Blake Brown). It was a huge learning experience. A friend of mine acted as our grip who had never done grip work before.
It was a minimal budget. We shot it in 20 days. My mom had such blind faith in her son. It was amazing how much blind faith my mother had in me; she absolutely believed that I could and would successfully do this project. We learned by taking risks and by having faith.
What message do you hope to send across with Cooking for Two?
Cooking for Two is much more about love than it is about cooking or anything else. It's about not conforming to what society wants. It's about surrounding yourself with people you love and who are your second family.
The film itself is about that and that's why it's a musical: It's designed to be upbeat and be uplifting to people. The design of the film is to make you laugh, enjoy yourself, and make you feel like you can achieve something. It's about not doing what society tells you to do. It's about finding the people you love.
Your production company, Double H, produced Cooking for Two. I understand one of your sisters (Jennifer) was the assistant director. Your sister, Marsha (a veteran actor, singer, dancer) also stars in the film. Is Double H a family-operated company?
It's basically my sister [Jennifer's] and I's company. I had gotten my first contract to be a travel host with National Geographic and I traveled the world. When I got home, I thought this work would continue forever. Then I heard they wanted me on another project, and when that project fell through, I was hit with the reality of being the "talent". That's when I realized: "I love creating, but I don't necessarily need to be in front of the camera."
My sister [Jennifer] and I came together to make this production company. Jennifer is an amazing and very organized producer. For whatever reason, she has decided to come on the craziest adventures with me.
I'm very lucky to have a family and sisters that have all been encouraging of me and my dreams. We created a show called The Day of Gluttony which I directed and hosted. We went to 24 restaurants in 24 hours, and we were actually able to do it within 24 hours.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I'm currently writing a script based on my military school background. I was sent to military school when I was 12. I'm writing the script with my sister again, and we want to turn it into a TV show. I'm taking my time with this one, and hopefully by the end of the year we'll have our full script and pilot ready to go.
Marsha's story was Cooking for Two. This story will be my story, which is about an Asian male who goes to military school in the middle of nowhere in the US and has to deal with what it's like to be in military school, as well as an Asian American going to military school.
I also still do projects with National Geographic. I host for Nat Geo Asia. I haven't seen too many Asian faces on Nat Geo US. One of the shows I worked on Route Awakening, and I believe they're releasing it in the US. Route Awakening is a National Geographic documentary series that highlights how China keeps their traditions alive.
I think it's time for more Asian faces to be on TV and across media. That's part of why I want to continue hosting and directing, and not just direct. It's important for us to have representation across the screen.
Where can your fans watch Cooking for Two and your other projects?
Cooking for Two will be available on iTunes and Amazon this year on the 4th of October.
Day of Gluttony is on Facebook and also on Tastemade, which is an online food network based in LA. I've also done a few things with them.
If someone were to make a biopic based on your life, who would portray you, and what would the name of the movie be?
Could Bruce Lee come back from the dead? Just kidding. But, in all seriousness, I love him. And it's not because of the kung fu part, but the wisdom and Buddhist philosophies he demonstrated in his interviews.
A very close second would be my friend and really awesome person, Daniel Wu. He is the main character of Into the Badlands [on the AMC network]. It is amazing what he has done with his career and what he has achieved. He's a family friend and he is a very inspiring person.
As for the title? Wow. There is a title that came to mind. I chose it because it was very provocative and edgy, but it also has "negative" connotations. I don't think these elements in the title are necessarily "negative," and I think it's important to have had a positive balance as well. But, the title that I was kicking around in my head would be Raised by Greed and Fame. Because I was.
What are your hopes and dreams for Cooking for Two?
I long for the day where I'm walking across the street and I hear someone sing a tune from the movie [Cooking for Two]. Or, maybe they're blasting the music from their car. The music in this film is awesome.
I like to think of this project as an Asian Flight of the Conchords. There is a musical number in there called "Try Being Gay". I'm not gay, but I grew up with a lot of influences from gay men. It's certainly an under-represented community. I wanted to shine a light on how, in the Asian population, we need to raise more awareness of the LGBT.
Rick (one of the leads) is a phenomenal singer and a very talented person. I think he has a very unique character that brings joy into people's lives. He doesn't have a conventional heroic look, but when you watch him in the film, he sings with his heart. There's something super charming about him. Cooking for Two is designed to be a charming film, and a big part of that charm was Rick. My dream is for there to be a sing-a-long one day.
Cooking For Two celebrates individuality and friendship. It shines a light on changing times and a changing culture, raising awareness of the LGBTQ community, and showcasing Asians and Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry. Can't wait until October 4th to sing along to Cooking for Two?
Check out the charmingly quirky trailer at vimeo.com/harryhyuan/cookingfortwotrailer1.
Follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/watchcookingfortwo.
They can also be found here on Facebook facebook.com/DayofGluttonyByTastemade.
Cooking For Two is available on iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/movie/cooking-for-two/id1415269781.
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