VOLUME 28 NO. 9 | FEBRUARY 21 - 27, 2009

‘Falling for Grace’ gives birth to rising star

Last updated 2-19-09 at 11:28 a.m.

By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly

A new romantic comedy is making a splash in the world of cinema, and the lead actress happens to be Asian American.

Fay Ann Lee is the star, writer, producer, director, and distributor of the independent film, “Falling for Grace.”

The film drew sold-out crowds when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006 and packed theaters during screenings in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, Iowa, among other cities.

“Falling for Grace” will open the Reel Film Festival for Women in Beverly Hills next month, and negotiations are currently underway for a worldwide television release.

According to Lee, the movie is proving many Hollywood cynics wrong.
“They said Americans would not pay to see this. They said people in New York might, but mainstream Americans would not pay to see this film.”

In the movie, which was initially titled “East Broadway,” Lee plays an up-and-coming Wall Street investment banker named Grace Tang, who grew up in New York’s Chinatown. Despite her success in climbing up the corporate ladder, Grace wants more than anything to become a part of the city’s so-called “social elite.”

Grace’s wish is granted when she gets invited to a posh soiree on the city’s Upper East Side. However, when partygoers mistake her for a famous Hong Kong heiress, her world spirals out of control.

After failed attempts to explain her true identity, Grace meets and falls in love with the city’s most eligible bachelor — a charming lawyer who makes her hopes of becoming a part of the “in crowd” all the more desirable — and entertaining.

Following a series of white lies and awkward situations, Lee eventually learns to appreciate her roots and realizes that the “upper class” may not always be all that it’s hyped up to be.

Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong, had entered the world of acting after obtaining a fine arts degree from the Wharton School in Pennsylvania. Following graduation, she landed a spot on Broadway’s Miss Saigon and played recurring roles in television shows like “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.”

The ambitious actress got into screenwriting in order to fill what she saw as a void in American cinema.

“When I started to work on television and in film, the roles were dismal for Asian Americans. Everything had accents, or they were very stereotypical. I was working quite steadily, but it was not very satisfying at all, as an actress,” said Lee.
“There weren’t too many people writing for us, so I thought, ‘Maybe I should try and write something.’”

Lee drafted the romantic comedy script and eventually placed in writing competitions. The fledgling writer even got rave reviews from big-name Hollywood distributors, but she was repeatedly turned down for offers because of the film’s Asian elements.

“I remember one particular producer who said, ‘I love the script … but would you change one thing? Could you change the Asian American lead to a Hispanic American lead?’”

Lee now wonders if it was mere coincidence that Jennifer Lopez came out with the romantic comedy “Maid in Manhattan” a few years following that conversation.

The young writer admits that she was devastated when distributors told her that Americans were “not ready” for a romantic comedy with an Asian American protagonist. She took matters into her own hands and not only wrote, but starred in, produced, directed, and promoted her movie.

Co-star Ato Essandoh plays Jamal, Grace’s friend, confidant, and occasional chauffeur. He said Lee is a force to be reckoned with.

“Fay is a monster. She is unbelievably talented, tenacious, and inspiring. She got a movie made — a good movie at that.”

Lee said the plot partially stems from her own life experiences. The love story was inspired by Lee’s random encounters with one of popular culture’s most iconic figures.

“I was partially inspired by my running into John F. Kennedy Jr. in New York,” said Lee. “I wondered if he would ever date someone from Chinatown.”

Lee also plugged a piece of her childhood into the movie. She recalled being shunned by a clique of “rich girls” at a birthday party when she was growing up in Hong Kong — a memory brought to life in the film’s soiree scene. The up-and-coming filmmaker looks forward to writing and directing more films that break barriers of class and culture — both on and off the set. For now, she is just focusing on getting her debut work for a wider release. Essandoh remains highly optimistic.

“Here’s what wins over ‘mainstream Americans.’ Ready? A good story. That’s it. If you have a strong story with characters that people identify with, you will have success — period,” he said. “Fay had a strong story and great actors to back it up. That’s what made the film.” (end)

For more information, visit www.fallingforgrace.com.

Evangeline Cafe can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.


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