Since immigrating to the Bay Area from China in 2013, local filmmaker and movie marketer Will Zang has worked feverishly to make a name for himself in the industry.
He has crew credits on the documentaries “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” and “Unsettled: Seeking Refugee in America” and produced a handful of his own films, including 2019’s award-winning “Dress Up Like Mrs. Doubtfire.”
But in March 2020, as shelter-in-place orders took effect in California, grinding productions to a halt and forcing movie theaters to close, Zang was unemployed and unsure of his next move.
Should he remain in the Bay Area amid rapidly rising anti-Asian sentiment or return to China where he wouldn’t be able to live openly as a gay man?
“For nearly seven to eight months, I was jobless,” says Zang. “I truly felt hopeless because of the uncertainty of my future in the U.S.”
He makes his anxiety palpable in his latest film, “The Leaf,” premiering May 13 at the Center for Asian American Media’s 11-day film festival CAAMFest in the “Out/Here” shorts program, which is offered virtually throughout the event. CAAMFest programming includes dozens of films either live streamed, on demand and/or at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in.
Zang never speaks in the four-minute hybrid doc, which documents his painful struggle as a gay Asian immigrant during the pandemic. He gets his feelings across using footage of a desolate San Francisco during quarantine, troubling COVID-19-related news reports and worried-sounding WeChat messages from the his faraway family and friends following Donald Trump’s disturbing comments about the “Chinese virus.”
Since COVID-19, Zang hasn’t had to look as far as Washington for anti-China and anti-Chinese comments. He’s heard them from his very own friends in the Bay.
“It’s very sad to see the virus not just killing people, but even dividing people,” says Zang. “I started questioning, ‘Am I still welcome here?’”
He also wondered how long he could afford to stay in The City.
In one scene, while searching for remote employment opportunities online, he receives voice messages from Beijing, where he’s told the virus is under control and he can easily get a job in the movie industry (China is the world’s second-largest film market after Hollywood.)
But if he were to return to his native country, Zang says he’d be forced back into the closet or risk public ridicule and the loss of work opportunities.
“Currently in China, being gay or queer is still not widely accepted culturally,” he says. “People would expect me to be a ‘normal’ man, getting married and having kids.”
His family makes clear in one voicemail in the film that they, too, expect him to settle down — preferably near them.
“You are like a leaf, and you have no roots overseas,” a friend adds in another message. “Your parents are still at home and no matter what, you can still count on them.”
Zang says their collective insistence that he move back both touched and confused him, making him temporarily second-guess his decision to stay in the US.
“[Ultimately] I feel I am more in the middle and rooted in two countries in different ways,” he says. “I am embraced by the liberal environment in the Bay Area, and on the other side, I am clear that I am still Chinese and feel more culturally connected to my Chinese friends.”
Zang, who remains in The City marketing movies for fellow indie filmmakers, says he hopes “The Leaf,” set to play more festivals in June, will impress the right people so he can secure funding for future projects.
It would be a dream for the moviemaker to someday inspire as many people with his art as his LGBTQ forebears like Armistead Maupin did with his “Tales of the City” novels or as producer Allan Carr did with “Grease.”
“I feel one thing I do share with them is I am also very dedicated, driven and focused on my own career,” says Zang. “I hope one day I could use my own works to influence more people.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Online and at Fort Mason Flix, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
When: May 13-23
Tickets: Some talks are free; online screenings $10 per program; $50-$90 for drive-in screenings; $50 for festival pass
Opening night: “Try Harder!” is director Debbie Lum’s profile of San Francisco’s Lowell High School, where most students are high achieving and Asian American, but often feeling like they’re not doing well enough. 6:30 and 9:15 p.m. May 13 at Fort Mason
Closing night: “Americanish,” directed by Iman Zawahry, tells the story of two sisters in Jackson Heights, Queens and their fresh-off-the-boat cousin trying to earn the love and respect of the matriarch of their family. 5 p.m. May 23 online
Centerpiece documentary: “Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust,” directed by Ann Kaneko, details an intergenerational and diverse community of Native American, Japanese American and environmentalist women as they fight for their land and their rights. 6 p.m. May 16 online
Centerpiece narrative: “Snakehead,” by Evan Jackson Leong, takes viewers to New York’s Chinatown where Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) arrives by a snakehead, a human smuggler, fights to stay alive, and goes from surviving to thriving. 7 p.m. May 22 online; preceded by 6 p.m. conversation with the director, whose hit film “Linsanity,” about the rise of basketball player Jeremy Lin from his home in Palo Alto to being an NBA star, screens virtually
Spotlight: Comedian-honoree Margaret Cho appears in conversation with the premiere of “Koreatown Ghost Story,” a supernatural horror tale based on a Korean ritual starring Cho and Lyrica Okano. 4 p.m. May 16 online
Hong Kong Cinema Showcase: “Happy Together,” Wong Kar-Wai’s seminal film starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung as lovers fighting to keep their relationship together screens at 6:30 p.m. May 15 at Fort Mason; in a separate program, “The Way We Keep Dancing,” directed by Adam Wong, about the lives of artists struggling to survive in the changing Kowloon Industrial District, screens at 9:15 p.m. May 15 at Fort Mason
Out/Here Shorts: Six films, including “The Leaf,” make up the 62-minute program of stories from LGBTQ+ communities, online from May 13-23