This weekend the Music Box Theatre will present two midnight shows of Mod Fuck Explosion (1994), underground writer-director Jon Moritsugu’s breakout film. The movie was made during an exciting time in Moritsugu’s career—he directed two features the previous year, the deadpan provocation Hippy Porn and the PBS-produced family drama Terminal USA; moreover, it comes from an exciting period in American independent film in general, when a new wave of underground filmmakers were first getting mainstream or near-mainstream recognition. In his long review for this week’s issue of the Reader, J.R. Jones describes Mod Fuck Explosion as ahead of its time in its breakdown of Asian-American stereotypes and avant-garde flourishes. When I spoke to Moritsugu the other day, he reflected on the personal and artistic influences behind Mod Fuck Explosion, the film’s international reception, and what he’s learned from four decades of making movies.
It’s been almost 25 years since you made Mod Fuck Explosion. How do you feel about the film today?
I’ll be honest with you—it’s still my favorite. With this movie, everything came together perfectly, from the production team to the acting to the mise-en-scène. It just felt like one of those slivers of time when everything was in synchronicity.
Have you watched it recently?
I haven’t sat down and watched the entire thing, but I have watched chunks of it. I think it still holds up really well. It doesn’t seem dated in any way, so I still enjoy viewing it.
When the film plays at the Music Box this weekend, it’s going to screen from 16-millimeter, which is the format you shot it on. Do you miss shooting in that format? I know that you’ve made your last few films digitally.
Part of me misses the griminess and the graininess of each frame and the experience of cutting film. Then again, there’s that stress on the movie set [when you’re shooting on film]. If you’re shooting a couple takes and each take is a couple minutes long, you’re thinking, “Man, that was a couple hundred bucks I just spent!”
I’m excited to see Mod Fuck Explosion at the Music Box because I’m used to watching your work on a small screen. What’s the biggest screen you’ve ever seen your films projected on?
Probably at the Berlin Film Festival. They had this huge theater, [which sat] maybe 1,500 people. It was packed, standing-room only, and the cool thing about it was they had this huge mixing board. It almost looked like a rock-and-roll club’s mixing board, and they had some sound guys doing an actual live mix of the soundtrack while the movie was playing. I think that was the biggest situation in which I’ve presented my work.
That seems appropriate, as Mod Fuck Explosion was the biggest movie you’d made up to that point. It was your breakthrough.
It really was. It was the first movie I made where I was dealing with producers and investors—other people’s money—which was, for me, delightful and also the hugest challenge. I felt privileged, but at the same time I was freaked out, completely freaked out.
What would cite as the principal sources of inspiration on the movie?
The big inspiration was that I cast Amy Davis [in the lead role]. Basically I had been in love with her for years. I cast her in the movie, she flew out to San Francisco . . . She was trying to give a good performance; I was trying to win her heart at the exact same time. So all this gets smooshed together into this crazy, like, cacophony of emotions—being afraid to make the movie, being excited about it, falling in love . . . All this shit was wrapped up in the three-week production, and I think that informed the way the movie turned out.
Did you write Amy’s part specifically for her?
Yeah, I did. She had her screen debut in My Degeneration [Moritsugu’s debut feature], she wasn’t in Hippy Porn—and Hippy Porn was a really bad experience for me. So I was like, “I’ve got to get Amy back.” She was dating a millionaire in New York, and she was telling me about this guy, and I was, like, “I’ve got to lure her back, win her heart, I’ve got to create a character for her that she’s going to fall in love with.” And because I was falling in love with her, I also wanted to fall in love with her character, London. So Amy read the script, she came out to San Francisco, and within three days we were madly in love. She broke up with her millionaire boyfriend, moved in with me, and then we got married a few years later.
What were some of your cinematic influences?
Liquid Sky, West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, and then really extreme artsiness like Jean-Luc Godard and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. All of these movies were stuff I was loving at the time, and I wanted to grab all of these as inspiration, but maybe take off in a more entertaining direction—or maybe a trashier, scuzzier direction.
I recently watched Hippy Porn for the first time, and I found it reminded me not just of the French New Wave, but of the French films that came out around the events of May 1968 and which responded to the deconstruction of society by deconstructing film form.
Originally, Hippy Porn was going to be about this May ’68-like shutdown of society. I tweaked the script, but that was the original impetus behind the movie. My original version of the script dealt with students in the middle of this fictitious May ’68-like situation.
But then it ended up being a movie about students not doing much of anything.
Yeah, yeah, because of lack of budget, small cast . . . I was, like, shutdown of society will be a little bit hard to do. Plus, we shot the movie in about a week. So rather than everything happening, it became a movie about nothing happening.
It must have been exciting, then, to make a movie like Mod Fuck Explosion, where so much happens.
It really was. It was a jump from the black-and-white graininess of people sitting in rooms and talking to having a budget, a real crew, we were able to shoot in color with some action sequences and a huge cast. It was the breath of fresh air I needed.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and they’re co-sponsoring the screening of Mod Fuck Explosion as a kick-off to this year’s fest, which will look back at the festival’s history. I think it’s a fitting choice, because I associate your films with the sort of movies the festival has always championed, which tend to bring together elements of high and low art.
I love that dialectic between high art and low art. I’ve always had a problem with stuff that’s just resonating on one level, like extreme high-art movies or the totally transgressive underground crap. I always wanted to make movies that fluctuate between these extremes.
Who did you consider to be your audience for Mod Fuck Explosion?
I always wanted to find a really wide audience and not necessarily preach to the converted. Mod Fuck definitely found that wide audience. Everyone to mods to rocker, people in the scene, underground people [watched it], and it sort of crossed over to the really rarified, high-art people. Like, it played at the underground fests, but it also broke out and played some pretty high-end European festivals. It felt like a triumph, especially after Hippy Porn, which was a complete, dismal failure in the United States. It played at pizza parlors and stuff like that here. But it did catch on in Europe and was a weird smash hit in Paris; for a year it played nonstop. It was strange, finding an artsy, weird European audience, but no American audience for the movie. But Mod Fuck turned things around, where there was a European audience as well as an American audience.
J.R. Jones writes of Mod Fuck Explosion, “the film was ahead of the curve in smashing through decades of Asian stereotypes.” Was this one of your aims in making the movie or did it come about incidentally?
It was a really important part of the movie. I made Mod Fuck around the same time that I did Terminal USA, which was like my big-budget, dysfunctional Asian family [movie]; I did that for PBS. In Mod Fuck, it wasn’t the main theme—the Asian-American thing—but it was sort of a subtext, and I definitely wanted to make fun of representations of Asians on the screen. Like, I play Kazumi, the leader of a biker gang, and all of my dialogue was post-dubbed, out of sync, totally crazy, in reference to the badly dubbed kung-fu movies I grew up with. I wanted it to be really funny and sarcastic, but at the same time, something that we’d never seen before.
Did you find yourself being pigeonholed as an Asian-American filmmaker as a result of dealing with these themes?
Absolutely. When I started out in filmmaking in the late 80s, the two worlds that I was getting support from were the underground scene and the Asian-American scene, like Asian-American film festivals. There was one programmer in New York who really helped me by programming my crazy movies in an Asian-American film fest. And what I found was that my movies completely offended Asian-Americans. I wasn’t expecting that. Even when Terminal USA came out—which is about a dysfunctional Asian-American family and breaks down all these stereotypes, deals with racism and all these issues—I really thought the Asian-American community would consider me as the new, yellow Spike Lee and I’d become champion of the cause. But the opposite thing happened. A lot of Asian-American activists slammed me. They said, “You can’t do this; we’re a dignified people. You’re making us look foolish. Why don’t you make a documentary about your family and your ancestors working in the sugar cane fields?” Stuff like that. It was quite a shock that the Asian-American community was sort of ashamed by movies and just wanted to push me aside.
And yet Terminal USA is probably your most distinguished film. You made it with the support of PBS.
I really liked the way it turned out, but it was such a strange experience. It wasn’t until the middle of production when some of the executives finally read the script, and they were trying to stop the production.
For me, that early-90s PBS series of short features by independent filmmakers epitomizes a golden age of indie filmmaking in this country. It featured films by you, Hal Hartley—
Todd Haynes made a movie, Tamara Jenkins made a movie . . . It really was a magical moment for indie film, where people were snagging deals and getting big chunks of money to foist their visions onto the screen. Because no one had really done this before, the future was really wide-open. It’s sort of like what was happening in indie music, when Pavement got signed to Matador and scuzzy, underground bands were getting signed to bigger labels. The future was wide-open for all of us. We were getting hope and inspiration and the feeling that anything was possible. And it lasted for a couple years and it got all fucked up.
Tell me about the movie you’re working on now.
It’s called Numbskull Revolution. And funny, we were just talking about high art—it’s a movie that makes fun of the conceptual art scene. Amy plays a freaky artist, and she also plays the artist’s twin sister. It’s going to be a sort-of Freudian battle between the id and the superego. We shot it last summer and I’m editing it now. I totally changed my method of filmmaking; it’s a low-budget movie, but it was shot really high-end. We got a hold of some awesome equipment, and it looks completely Hollywood, mainstream, but it’s also a really freaky movie.
Bad-taste humor is a consistent factor in your films. Do you feel like there are things you could say when you made Mod Fuck Explosion that you can’t say now?
I think it’s just the opposite. I think there are things I’m saying now [in my movies] that I couldn’t say earlier because of the insecurities of being young and my ego and stuff like that. Right now, in my career or whatever you want to call it, I can look at myself and make fun of myself and put my foibles into my characters, whereas in the past I had a hard time doing that. I used to be, like, “Wow, I’m creating this fucked-up character who has nothing to do with me.” Now, I’m creating a fucked-up character that has everything to do with me.