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  • Holly Kaplan Reflects on the Bittersweetness of Youth in 'Sunflower Girl' (2023)

    Skateboard wheels on asphalt and a mellow, pulsing instrumental ease us into “Sunflower Girl” (2023), a tender yet poignant coming-of-age short film. Rosie (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the narrator and protagonist, is a girl on the cusp of teenhood, her pale yellow shirt a nod to her true name, Kui — which means sunflower. Rosie has a crush on a boy in her neighborhood, which leads her to make some hasty decisions that she may or may not end up regretting in the long run. It’s this awkwardly desperate, gentle spirit of early adolescence that director Holly Kaplan taps into in her nostalgic short film. “So, COVID happened, and I moved back home [to New York City],” Kaplan explains. “Being in my childhood neighborhood and everything, old stomping grounds and the school I went to…it was really desolate. The city was completely dead. So [I] was just doing these walks to go outside and by myself and just be in these old environments. That kind of sparked this idea, these memories I had.” “I was remembering all these people from school,” she continues. “All of these things kind of just started coming into my head, and that’s when I think the wheels started turning.” There’s a warm haze that blankets every shot of the film, bathing the screen in a vintage summer glow. It’s not just aesthetic; it’s a thin veil cast over the past that both softens the edges and intensifies the emotions. It’s evocative, luminous, and absolutely gorgeous. This visual poetry complements Rosie’s journey in a time when the character’s world seems both expansive and suffocating. “I owe it to working with my incredible DP, Michael Cong,” Kaplan says. “We ended up choosing an older camera with vintage lenses. It helped sell that look, that [the film] was nostalgic.” Beyond her age, Rosie’s identity contains another layer that the film makes space to examine. She’s a second-generation Chinese-American, lending a specificity to the character’s perspective and filtering how she moves through the world and the choices that she makes. “I hope [this story] resonates with Asian-American femmes,” Kaplan says. “Or Asian diasporic people who have the experience of feeling like they are an outlier in their family. Sometimes it’s lonely to be [that] one person. You’re kind of going against the grain and you’re doing what you like. That’s really the whole story of the film. It’s okay to be human.” “Sunflower Girl” has been selected for and screened in film festivals worldwide, from India to Sweden to the U.K. and Canada, a promising triumph for Kaplan. “We’re finishing up our last year of festival [submissions],” she says. “We’re waiting to hear back. Hopefully it’ll get into even more and we’ll be all around the world and still in the U.S. and all that.” “I think this honestly just taught me to believe in myself,” Kaplan concludes. “That’s the biggest lesson, I think.” “Sunflower Girl” will be screening this June in Singapore, Poland, and Canada. About the filmmaker: Holly M. Kaplan is a Chinese-American filmmaker, born and raised in New York City. Inspired and driven by ties to her mixed Cantonese heritage, Holly is invested in bringing narratives about the Asian diaspora and diversity to the forefront. She earned her BA in Film & Media Arts at American University and completed a filmmaking program at FAMU International Prague, where she filmed her first short, “THE LESSON.” A former apprentice to the late Independent Director/Producer Ben Barenholtz, Holly served as Director’s Assistant to Executive Producer/Director Lisa Soper and Director Alex Pillai on “PRETTY LITTLE LIARS: ORIGINAL SIN” (HBO Max). In 2022, Holly was selected for NALIP’s Latino Lens: Narrative Short Film Incubator for Women of Color sponsored by Netflix to write, direct, and produce “SUNFLOWER GIRL.” About the film: When a 13-year-old Chinese-American girl has the opportunity to go skateboarding with her crush, it comes at the cost of abandoning her little sister. https://sunflowergirlfilm.com/ Cover photo: Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as Rosie. Photo by Luna Cristales. Courtesy of NALIP.

  • Justinian Huang: Breaking barriers with queer-led romance novel

    The Universal Asian got to speak with Justinian Huang, author of "The Emperor and the Endless Palace." Lockdown in 2020 was a massive change for all of us, and we had to find our own ways to cope with the isolation. Many people used the now-empty slots in the day for reading books, finally crossing titles off of lists that had been abandoned for years, maybe decades. Some people might have even tried their hand at writing a book. That’s what newly-published author Justinian Huang did. And he didn’t just write a book. Inspired by personal heartbreak, he wrote a breathtakingly large, unapologetically spicy queer Asian love story that spans three lives and a total of two thousand years. Justinian Huang didn’t start out as a writer. Before publishing “The Emperor and the Endless Palace,” he was a career film executive. “To be honest,” he admits, “I really miss being a film exec.” (His most recent position in the film industry was VP of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation, citing the wonderful team there as his main reason.) “Being in that seat as an executive, being a gatekeeper, you can really enact a lot of change,” he continues. “When it comes to my projects, I need to make sure that at least one of the directors in every project is a woman, is a person of color, or is queer. And that was my directive.” Before Sony, Huang worked as the head of development at Dreamworks Pearl in Shanghai. It was there that the first sparks of what would become “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” were lit. “When I was young and I came out to my family, I was told by other Asian folks that me being queer doesn’t work because Asian people aren’t gay,” he says. “That’s not a thing for us. So when I heard about this Ancient Chinese emperor and his lover, Dong Xian, and how their epic love story brought down the first Han dynasty, I was just like, holy shit. We queer Asians have been fucking up shit for a while. And not just that; it means that, as a queer Asian person, I’m descended from the most noble of lineages.” “I knew then,” he continues. “I was like, I need to write something about these two boys—because they were boys. They were 19 and 20 when they met. It’s just so epic. It’s the greatest love story never told.” It wasn’t just their love story in Huang’s mind when he wrote the book. It was also his own. “During that time [in Shanghai], I fell in love with two men. One of them was born in China, the other one was born in Taipei. And when I came back home because of the pandemic in 2020, I wasn’t thinking about my career. I was thinking about them. And I realized, what if they are the inspiration, finally, for this book? I want to write about this emperor and his lover. What if I can put their personalities into this?” Dong Xian and Emperor Ai are among the most notable queer figures in history (at least in Asia) despite the lack of records about the details of their individual lives. “There’s not much known,” Huang says. “The most famous story is called ‘The Passion of the Cut Sleeve,’ in which the emperor and his lover were taking a nap. The lover was asleep on the emperor’s shoulder, and instead of waking his lover up, the emperor cut off his own sleeve.” Ultimately, in blending the emperor’s love story with his own, Justinian Huang was able to put the major pieces together for his book. “When [I’m] writing historical fiction, I focus more on the fiction and less on the historical,” he says. “What will create the most compelling story for my reader is what I focus on.” “I wrote the first draft in two months during the pandemic lockdown of summer 2020, and it just spilled out,” he recalls. “I didn’t sleep for like four weeks. My mom came to visit me at one point, and she thought I was dying because I was so thin and haggard. It [was] just one of those things where you wait and wait and wait, and it just explodes out of you.” Now, after publishing “The Emperor and the Endless Palace,” Justinian Huang is still processing what it means to have broken that glass ceiling in publishing a romance novel with two queer Asians as the leads. Being a queer Asian himself, he’s also stepping into the spotlight as an identifiable voice in both the queer and romantic literature spaces. It can be rewarding: “I’ve been getting complaints that people have been losing sleep,” he laughs. “Three times, I’ve gotten messages on Instagram from people, at 4 a.m. in their region, being like ‘damn you, I didn’t sleep last night because of your book.’ And that’s such a great compliment! I also get so many messages from queer Asian folks saying that they felt so seen by this book and that they’re so happy it’s out there.” It can also mean more challenges to overcome: “In the book community, there is a lot of gatekeeping that happens. There’s been some resistance to my book by people who, for whatever reason, don’t think it’s valid and don’t think that it deserves to be stacked alongside other romance books.” However, that’s about to put Huang off. “I worked in the film industry a long time,” he shrugs. “I like shepherding projects of huge scopes and then seeing how people respond to it. I’m actually well-trained in it, and it’s easy for me to sort of dust it off my shoulder. Ultimately, when I think about the last couple of weeks since my book came out, I just have enormous gratitude.” “[The experience] has been very humbling, and I’m very proud,” he finishes. “When I first started writing this book and I told people I was writing a book about queer Asian folks—a romance between queer Asian folks, I was told all the time that none of the big publishers will ever touch this book because [it’s] way too niche. But we got a deal with HarperCollins, and they really believe in this book. And so I’m just very appreciative that the people that matter are embracing this book.” “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is Justinian Huang’s debut novel. It will not be his last. “Similar to how my first novel is about the Eastern concept of reincarnation, my second book is about the Eastern concept of superstition, but told in the context of an epic family drama,” he shares. “So I’m very excited. I’m working on that right now. I like to call the tone of ‘Endless Palace’ romantic anguish. The tone of my second book is bitchy gay brunch.” About the Book: “A sweeping triumph in queer romance.” - Booklist “What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?” In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex, and intrigue. In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead. And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before. Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them. As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both. An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is a genre-bending spicy romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love. Author’s Note: “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is a heart-pounding romantasy, full of shocking twists, morally shifty characters, and erotic thrills. When it comes to the romance within this novel, you can expect equal parts mess and swoon, but its central thread is an epic tale of true love against all the odds. About the Author: Born to immigrants in Monterey Park, California, Justinian Huang studied English at Pomona College and screenwriting at Oxford. He now lives in Los Angeles with Swagger, a Shanghainese rescue dog he adopted during his five years living in China. “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is his debut novel. Before becoming a novelist, Huang was a career film executive, most currently as the VP of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation. Prior to Sony, Huang was the head of development at Dreamworks Pearl in Shanghai where he worked on “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Abominable,” and Academy Award–nominated “Over the Moon.”

  • How Xenia Deviatkina-Loh Is Redefining Diversity in Classical Music

    Many people think of classical music as a thing of the past. Its compositions have stood the test of time, holding a unique place in cultural history. Works by people like Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Wagner, Schubert, and more still have the industry in a chokehold, dominating elite classical music institutions and programs worldwide. However, classical music is undergoing a remarkable transformation. The world today is immensely diverse, and musicians are reimagining classical works, infusing them with new perspectives and cultural influences. So, instead of fading into stagnancy, classical music is expanding thanks to the dedication of musicians who are reshaping its narrative and relevance in ways that continue to captivate. Dr. Xenia Deviatkina-Loh, a talented violinist, pedagogue, and advocate for diversity in classical music, is one of the individuals leading the charge for change. Born in Sydney, Australia, and now residing in Los Angeles, Deviatkina-Loh’s journey with the violin began with her mother. “I was a fidgety child,” she jokes. “And she thought, hey, let’s get her into violin. Maybe my kid will be less fidgety.” (That plan never worked out. Deviatkina-Loh is, she admits, still very fidgety.) While she found her passion for classical music early in life, Deviatkina-Loh’s pursuit of that track also revealed the inequalities entrenched within the industry. She became acutely aware of the challenges faced by musicians from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds. “It isn’t just down to basic costs, like violins,” she says. “Your strings, bows, maintenance, and lessons all amount to a big dollar sign.” “A kid in college, if they want to pursue [violin], the instruments probably go between a four-figure to a low five-figure. It shouldn’t be normalized,” she insists. “Where does that money come from? Not every family has the financial stability to do that.” Deviatkina-Loh is not one to shy away from a challenge. Recognizing the need for change, she got involved with the Asian Classical Music Initiative (ACMI). “It’d be easy if I just put my head down, which is such an Asian thing to do, right?” she says. “But I was always that kid who told my mom, ‘this isn’t fair.’” The ACMI is a pioneering effort committed to promoting the work of AAAPI classical music composers and musicians. Founded by graduate students at the University of Kansas, ACMI holds concerts and conferences to raise awareness and celebrate the cultural traditions of Asia, Asian America, and the Pacific Islands. ACMI’s work comes at an important time when conversations about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) are at the forefront of both the classical music industry and the wider world. The initiative aims to address the often-invisible racial inequalities within the classical music community, particularly for Asian and Asian-American individuals. As a platform, ACMI offers musicians of all backgrounds a place to showcase their talents and contribute to a more inclusive classical music landscape. “It’s hard,” Deviatkina-Loh says. “It’s a lot of work, and yeah, that’s a reality. People don’t get comfortable with you speaking up.” Deviatkina-Loh’s work with ACMI is part of a larger movement within the industry to make a positive impact on issues related to diversity, representation, and inclusion. While there has been some progress made in recent years, there is still much work to be done to make sure that musicians of all backgrounds are given equal opportunities. ACMI’s efforts, along with those of individuals like Dr. Deviatkina-Loh, are paving the way for a classical music community in which talent knows no boundaries.

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Other Pages (52)

  • Heather Lewis

    < Back Heather Lewis Contributor Heather Lewis, or 노 영 미 as her biological sisters have named her, was born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in the U.S. at six months old. Heather has had many professions: waitress, ballroom dance instructor, middle school English teacher, and her current role in operations. She has a master’s in English, a master’s in Critical Studies of Teaching English, and a master’s in business administration. She is a proud KAD (Korean ADoptee) and likes to explore identity through writing. She loves being married to “fake Dave Grohl” and raising her only daughter. Despite still not knowing her birthday, she’s sure she is a Capricorn. Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lewie73

  • Essay | The Universal Asian

    Essay Heather Lewis Essay Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: Finding my tribe There’s a sea of different people in this world. While everyone is unique and different, there are enough commonalities between us all to... Vanessa Nguyen Essay What It Means To Be Asian in America: Recognizing and breaking the cycle of trauma The rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community has left many of us questioning not just our identity as Asian-Americans, but how we... Cynthia Landesberg Essay Artificial Habitat Growing up, I lived in one of those unremarkable suburban neighborhoods everyone has seen and no one remembers. Two-story houses.... Heather Lewis Essay Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: How do you find joy? As adoptees, many of us have had to create our own joy. We have to work at joy because it doesn’t come naturally to us. We are too busy... Cynthia Landesberg Lifestyle Choosing Parenthood “I think, maybe, we should talk about starting a family,” my husband said one day, as we sat on the back porch of a winery north of our... Heather Lewis Essay Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: Looking exotic sitting at Cracker Barrel I was adopted into a small farming community with one blinking stop light. For all my life, I was surrounded by people who did not look... 1 2 3 4 5

  • Cynthia Landesburg

    < Back Cynthia Landesburg Contributor Born in Busan, South Korea, Cynthia spent seven weeks with her birth family and the next four months in an orphanage and foster home before being flown to Washington, D.C., to her Jewish adoptive family as an #importedAsian. As a recovering perfectionist and overachiever, she left her legal career in favor of caring for her two sons, both adopted from Korea, and her biological daughter. She currently spends her day homeschooling her sons, chasing her baby daughter around the house, and spoiling her dog with a lot of walks to clear her head. And in the moments in between, she writes. Cynthia looks forward to exploring issues around parenting, adoption as an adoptee, and the overall adoptee experience. You can find more of her writing at her website, www.adoptionsquared.com .

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