2009 Spotlight Award: Bao Tran

Filmmaker Bao Tran busts stereotypes on screen.
Filmmaker Bao Tran busts stereotypes on screen.

“I’m an old person in a young person’s body,” asserts local filmmaker Bao Tran. It’s a little hard to believe at first glance, given Tran’s boyish face, wiry frame and casual air. But then he starts talking—about the emotional core of a story, the stratification of minority filmmakers, and being influenced by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock—and you realize there really is a wise old film professor in there.

Regardless of age, this filmmaker’s star is on the rise. Tran’s critically acclaimed, award-winning short film, Bookie (2008), screened at 22 film festivals over 18 months, including the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival—an impressive achievement for any independent filmmaker, much less for someone in the beginning of his career who has never attended film school. In 2009, SIFF chose Tran as one of four local filmmakers to participate in the annual Fly Filmmaking challenge, in which participants have three months to make a movie from a script pulled out of a hat. His 10-minute short Black Coffee took a standard love-triangle-with-a-twist and transformed it into a beautifully shot, original story. His current project is his most ambitious to date, a feature film (which he wrote) called Sleep Never Comes. Currently in development, the genre-bending “action-fantasy” film is about a princess whose blood is a sort of fountain of youth, which compels vampiric motives in people.

Born in Olympia in 1980, Tran was 12 when he moved with his parents to Shoreline, where, he says, he spent an inordinate amount of time watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies, and trying to replicate them with friends in his backyard. Shooting these kung fu shenanigans (in Hi8 film) gave him his first taste for filmmaking—a taste that was encouraged and nurtured by Chinese actor and filmmaker Corey Yuen, whom Tran credits as an informal but influential mentor. Known for his kung fu action movies and his work with Hong Kong stars Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Yuen (who has a home in Seattle, and whose sons went to high school with Tran) reviewed and gave feedback on some of Tran’s earliest endeavors. He credits his storytelling education to local filmmaker and teacher Brian McDonald, from whom he took a class at 911 Media Arts and learned that releasing himself from the confines of a genre—such as “kung fu movies”—was “the most liberating thing I could do as a filmmaker.”

Explaining that his parents were “boat people,” part of the mass emigration from Vietnam following the war, Tran says his work can’t help but skew toward an immigrant viewpoint, but he has no interest in making films with a stereotypical minority-against-the-world angle. Instead, he says, he focuses on telling a compelling tale and casts Asian actors “if the story calls for it.”

Bookie (which Tran wrote and directed, and filmed at the now-defunct Mirabeau Room on Queen Anne) is set in a Seattle nightclub in 1963, an era he was intrigued by because “that was when Seattle was really racially diverse.” The richly atmospheric 19-minute black-and-white short, in which the title character risks crossing his powerful boss in an attempt to help a beautiful woman, perfectly captures the music, intensity and “just the way it was” multiculturalism of the time.

In Black Coffee, also filmed in sumptuous black-and-white, the storyline is enriched by Tran’s cinematic savvy as well as the fact that he cast an Asian actor (Yuji Okumoto, who also owns the Kona Kitchen in Maple Leaf) in the lead role. “Having an Asian American in a power position makes it not cliché,” he says.

While he’s grateful for the success of his two recent short films, he fears being pigeonholed (“Don’t make me into the black-and-white guy!” he pleads). But those concerns should be put to rest with Sleep Never Comes. Embracing what he calls a “trend of shooting in the motherland”—and perhaps revealing that inner old person—Tran hopes to film it in the bold colors of Vietnam.

PHOTO CREDIT: STEVE KORN

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