The first time Eugene Sun Park saw himself represented in a film, he was 25.
The film was Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, a 2002 drama about a group of studious Asian American teenagers who engage in petty crime to cut loose from their responsibilities. While the film still fed into stereotypes, it was the first time Park was exposed to an almost-entirely Asian American cast.
“I spent most of my youth never seeing someone onscreen who reflected my identity or experience,” Park says. “The only times I would see an Asian American, particularly an Asian American male, the character was the subject of ridicule or seen as a joke. He was either a foreign exchange student with broken English or was a martial arts person.”
Park cites this lifelong frustration with a lack of dynamic and intersectional representations in media as the driving force behind Full Spectrum Features, a four-year-old 501(c)(3) nonprofit film production house and distributor based in Lakeview.
Its mission, as the name suggests, is to diversify Chicago’s independent film scene by amplifying the work of women, queer people, and filmmakers of color. Of the films in Full Spectrum’s current catalog (eight completed, seven in development or production), 91 percent are directed by women and 55 percent showcase queer people in prominent speaking roles. (By contrast, according to Full Spectrum’s website, just 7 percent of Hollywood films are directed by women and less than 1 percent feature queer people in prominent speaking roles.)
Park never studied filmmaking or film theory in a classroom, but he did get a pretty good picture of the Hollywood film industry by working at various assistant jobs at talent agencies and production companies in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t a picture he particularly liked.
“I was extremely frustrated by the industry and how unreceptive they were to stories about people of color in particular,” Park says. “Frustrating is an understatement.”
Park was so frustrated, in fact, that he left the industry altogether to study philosophy for almost a decade.
Five years into his PhD program, in 2012, he dropped out and moved to Chicago. During his time in academia, he’d noticed the dramatic changes in the film industry. No longer was filmmaking something only for an elite few with vast resources and industry connections. It was now open to anybody with a laptop and a digital camera.
“I saw friends who I had gone to college with who were making incredible films that were going to Sundance and SXSW and I was shocked to see that they were making these films on their laptops with a camera they bought at Best Buy,” Park says.
He realized that if Hollywood wasn’t making the types of films he wanted to see, he could make them himself.
His first project was The Orange Story (2016), a narrative short film he produced and cowrote (Erika Street directed) about a Japanese American man preparing to leave his home for an incarceration camp during World War II. Jason Matsumoto, a director of pricing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and director of the Japanese drum ensemble Ho Etsu Taiko, joined the team as a producer, focusing on securing grants and establishing connections with the local Japanese American community. Park and Matusmoto found that there were a large number of filmmaking grants available only to nonprofit organizations. This became the catalyst for them to start Full Spectrum and broaden the accessibility of filmmaking.
Both Park and Matsumoto wanted to support not just their own work at Full Spectrum, but also the work of filmmakers who wouldn’t be easily supported by Hollywood—those exploring different identities, different stories, and different ways of telling them.
“For me it has always been less about I need to be the writer or director of this piece and more of I really want this story to be out there in the world and I want people to hear it,” Park says.
Those stories include, among others, Make Out Party (2018), a queer candy-coated comedy of errors by Emily Esperanza; Signature Move (2017), a lesbian wrestling romantic comedy by Jennifer Reeder; Holy Trinity (currently in postproduction), an experimental portrait of a dominatrix-turned-medium by Molly Hewitt; and The T, a web series about the lives of fictional LGBTQ Chicagoans by Bea Cordelia and Daniel Kyri.
There’s always room to grow when it comes to representation, though. Full Spectrum doesn’t currently offer films that focus on disability—something Park is trying to change in the near future.
“We’re always looking to be fuller in how we define Full Spectrum,” Park says.
While the name refers to which stories are told and who is telling them, it also describes the different styles of filmmaking. Much of Full Spectrum’s catalog is experimental—often featuring nontraditional narrative structures, unique aspect ratios and cinematography, or stylized performance art that turns into an immersive experience known as “expanded cinema.”
“If you want to include a wide range of storytellers, you have to be open to and support a wide range of ways of telling those stories,” Park says. “The conventions of Hollywood filmmaking and storytelling that we’re very used to arguably have built into them the systems of patriarchy and so on that we’re actively trying to work against.”
Full Spectrum aims to correct the representation of marginalized people not just through representation in film, but by changing the structure of what might be an old-fashioned method of filmmaking to begin with.
“If we just take a broad range of identities and try to tell stories using the techniques and tropes of Hollywood, I’m not sure that we’ve done much to truly accomplish or support diversity in storytelling,” Park says.
The catalog of styles and storytellers Full Spectrum is able to support is due to the diversity of Chicago and the filmmakers who live here, Park says. Chicago’s film scene also feels comparatively less demanding and rigid than those in LA or New York, which can make it easier for an unconventional idea like Make Out Party to turn into a reality.
“The people who are here and are making films in Chicago, in some ways they are doing that almost defiantly,” Park says. “There’s a certain type of person who’s thinking about filmmaking in a different way that’s going to be here and make work here. There’s a unique kind of openness to creativity among the filmmaking community here.” v
Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 5 Thu 5/16, 7 PM, MCA Chicago, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010, fullspectrumfeatures.com. F