Armed with a $10,000 grant from the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Alief filmmaker Quoc Huynh is flexing his creative muscles by creating a romantic, action-comedy drama based in Houston’s Chinatown and Little Saigon communities.

The city’s grant program is administered by the Houston Arts Alliance and funded by a portion of a hotel occupancy tax.

Huynh shared his thoughts about his new film with the International Management District.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

A: I am 27 years old, born in Dallas, and raised in Houston. I have an older brother and sister. My mother is a nail technician, my father is estranged. I graduated from Elsik High School and the University of Texas with a BS in radio-television-film and a BA in sociology.

Q: What is your reaction to receiving the grant and the recognition?

A: It felt like a gamble had paid off. I say that because I’d made the decision to make the film well before I heard back about the grant. I wrote and rewrote the script, held auditions, made first and second casting choices, made all the arrangements with the cast and crew, and set the production dates. I was set on making this little movie by any means necessary and I was fortunate enough to have collaborators willing to work with me for the absolute minimum. If the money couldn’t be raised, I had contingency plans to downsize the project to fit whatever amount of money I had in the bank.

So when I was notified that I won the grant, I felt like I had just caught a touchdown in overtime. All the effort had paid off. I love movies and making them, and getting a chance to make one with a decent budget is a blessing and incredible opportunity.

I haven’t gotten much publicity for the project yet, but the recognition I feel is enormous. My lead actor, Vic, gifted me a heavy metal Chinese sword with a note and my name inscribed onto it. For me, this sword holds as much value as an Academy Award. Then, I got this grant and then you reached out to me for an interview. I feel on top of the world.

Q: When did you first have an interest in filmmaking? How did it come about?

A: The intention to make films arose in me as a teenager. I’m a big doodler and my schoolwork has been coated in little drawings my entire life. I wasn’t interested in capturing things as they were, I wanted to illustrate how things felt.

In a boring class, my notes would have people melting and falling apart. In an interesting class, I’d illustrate abstractions of the concepts being taught. I didn’t know it then, but I was putting my feelings to the paper and getting my start as a storyteller. I didn’t have much as a kid growing up but our television set was a revelation. I’d never felt more visceral emotion than I did while watching “Dragon Ball Z” on Toonami or Stephen Chow’s “Shaolin Soccer” borrowed from Blockbuster.

I would run in circles replaying my favorite scenes in my head, replacing the main characters with myself. The moving picture on the screen and in my mind became one of my greatest joys. This art form had a hold on me that music or paintings never came close to. I loved the maximalism of film, the way it attacks all of our senses and puts together all the great art forms.

Q: What was the first film you made? What is the favorite film that you have made, and why? What was it about?

A: My first film was an untitled spy drama shot in the retail plaza of my mom’s old nail shop on a point-and-shoot camera that had a video feature. I was no older than 10 years old and my brother, sister and childhood friend were the stars.

“Between Us” is my favorite film of mine. It was my final project for cinematography class. It was meant to be 2-4 minutes long and showcase our knowledge of camera and lighting. My film came out to be 18 minutes long and had the worst cinematography of any project in the class. It was about a college guy and gal hooking up and mistakenly using glue as lube. Matters are complicated further when the girl’s actual boyfriend shows up and starts banging on the door.

Huynh on set, 2nd from right

It’s my favorite because of the unforgettable audience reaction at the class screening. My professor had seen and critiqued every project before the screening except mine, because it was too long to fit into our final class session and no one was willing to stay longer. I begged my professor to watch it before it was put into the program but he took a nonchalant approach and trusted it would be fine.

When it was shown as the final film for the class screening, the reaction was everything I could’ve hoped for and more. The audience was totally captured by the film and laughed when they were supposed to and even harder than I expected. I’ve screened my films at a few movie theaters since then, but I’ve still never gotten a reaction like that one. It was all so genuine, with everyone being taken totally off guard. My professor even asked for permission to keep the film to show to future classes.

Q: Do you have a name for the film that will be shot in Alief?

A: The film is called Chinatown. It will always irk me that Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” has almost nothing to do with any real Chinatown and its residents. It’s a great movie, no doubt, but it’s a waste of a name. Q.T. Ly’s “Chinatown” has everything to do with Asian Americans and the people who built these neighborhoods. I like the name as a bit of a misnomer too because these neighborhoods today have far more than just Chinese people.

Q: When will you go into production? What is the release date of the film, and where will be it shown?

A: Production began in August and concluded in October. It’s currently in post-production. The film will be released in 2023 and shown at the international film festivals that accept it. Afterward, it’ll be put online somewhere to be determined.

A: Please describe the film. Is it a drama, action movie or comedy, or all of the above?

A: The film is drama, action, comedy, with a hint of romance.

Q: When and how did the idea for the film come about?

A: The Houston Police Department executed a massive raid on illegal gambling dens arrogantly operating in broad daylight. These dens and their bosses had paid off a couple of Asian police officers for protection and to look the other way. They never expected to all go down together. More than 40 people were charged over a single weekend. At the heart of the case was a luxury car bought in the names of two police officers.

The scandal was discussed for a bit on the news but people quickly moved on. I couldn’t believe it. To me, this was the biggest thing to ever happen on my block – but people in Houston are so normalized to crime. I never forgot this story. It was so ridiculous and so uncharacteristic of Asian-American stereotypes. We’re thought of as society’s least problematic demographic. We work, go to school, get good jobs, and stay out of everyone’s way. For the most part, that stuff is true, but this event reminded me that our people could break bad just as hard as anyone else could. Succumbing to desire and temptation is a much better baseline for a story than keeping your head down and doing everything that’s expected of you. I don’t believe Asian Americans have dug very deep into our flawed nature in our shows and movies. “Chinatown” is my attempt at going there.

Q: Why did you select Alief as the location?

A: Alief is my home and where the real-life story took place. It’s the most diverse place in the universe and the perfect place to tell an absurd and hilarious crime story.

Q: Why did you select gentrification as a theme in the movie? Can you relate to that personally, and if so, how did it come about?

A: Art is a brilliant way to voice criticism. It can be about anything. Gentrification becomes the main conflict in Chinatown’s story after the main character, Tommy, gets out of his own way. I saw gentrification up close for the first time during my college years in Austin. Old buildings were (and are) constantly being torn down to make way for ‘Whoville’ houses and new skyscraper apartments. Over the past decade, most of Austin has been erased and replaced. The city’s lower-income residents have been driven out as a new wave of upper-class families has been invited in.

Houston faces a similar problem with its own nuances. In Chinatown, the villainous Big Boss asks, “Houston is overdue for renovation, don’t you think?” Instead of tearing down old buildings and building new ones, Houston’s developers place their efforts further and further away from the city’s heart.

The abandoned areas of town became hubs for immigrant communities to get their start in the USA. The building and streets of Alief are rundown and falling apart, and yet the area is vibrant and full of life. Diverse cultures filled in the gaps that the exiting wealth left behind. Houston, unlike Austin, struggles mainly with poverty and crime; problems that won’t seem to go away unless wealth and opportunity are injected into the city. Is this an invitation for gentrification?

Gentrification is a conundrum for which there are no simple answers. My movie’s antagonist, Big Boss, is not driven by a sick desire to destroy the community. In his mind, he is perfectly justified in wanting to see Chinatown rejuvenated.

Tommy, the unlikely hero and protagonist, is very much a victim of circumstance. If there were a legitimate way to earn riches, would he have succumb to corruption and taken advantage of his position as a cop? I hope Chinatown can spur more conversations about what can be done to revitalize our city and our neighborhoods. The new Alief Neighborhood Center is a great start, I can’t wait to go there when it opens.

Q: Were you looking forward to filming in Houston’s Chinatown and Little Saigon? How much do you think it will contribute to putting the communities on the national map?

A: The production of Chinatown was blessed to garner some local support. Several locations gave us a day to shoot, free of charge. The film would not exist without the support of Hong Kong City Mall and Pho Con Bo (now called Com Ga). Being able to shoot at places I frequent and drive past every day was surreal to say the least. I hope they’ll enjoy the movie when it’s finished.

Alief has been featured on several cooking shows and rightfully so. The food here is the best in the world. Mo Amer’s Netflix show “Mo” puts a spotlight on Alief, too. “Chinatown” seems to be the first effort to put this Asian-American community into focus within a fictional narrative piece.

I don’t know if this community wants the national spotlight, but there is so little documentation of its existence. People coming to Alief point their cameras at the food in front of them – rarely at the people who made it. I hold the people of Alief close to my heart and the things that happen here matter to me. Maybe that’s all Chinatown is about at the end of the day.

Q: How many Asian filmmakers are there in the Houston area? Are you in contact with them?

A: “Chinatown’s” cinematographer Ryan Lin, sound mixer Dorian Ly, and actors Tam Huynh, Lien Nguyen and Vic Hung are a few. George Chuang, Antony Wang, and David Nguyen are some other great Asian directors in Houston. I conducted as wide of a search as possible for local Asian actors and crew. I reached out to Asian friends and their families and acquaintances. It felt like I asked every Asian person in my circle to audition for a part. In the end, many major roles were cast with Asian people based outside of Texas. Houston is a tough city to be a filmmaker in for anyone, especially so for an Asian one telling an Asian story.

Q: Please share your thoughts about Asian filmmakers in Houston, nationally and internationally.

A: There are rather few Asian filmmakers in Houston though I was able to meet more by going on the endeavor of making this film. Making movies inevitably connects you to others who make movies; each meeting feels meaningful regardless of race.

Asian-American filmmakers with large budgets are few in the USA. Ang Le, Justin Lin, Chloe Zhao, David Kwon and Jon Chu are doing wonderful things. The Asian-American voice in filmmaking still feels like it’s finding itself and proving its value. The Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All at Once” took the world by storm. Isn’t it A24’s highest grossing film? And yet, how many new Asian American-led projects are slated to be made? There’s a way to go for this demographic to become a staple in film and television even though we do so much with limited opportunities.

Internationally, Asian filmmakers are responsible for a ton of film masterpieces. South Korea routinely puts out amazing films and television shows with a fraction of the USA’s resources. Japan and Hong Kong, too. Asians have known about these great foreign productions forever and it feels like Americans are just starting to catch on. Asian films deserved the Oscar for Best Picture long before “Parasite” got the first.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share?

A: Thank you for this opportunity to speak on my movie, “Chinatown,” which will be screened in Houston theaters at festivals in 2023.

— Photos by Jesus Pineda