Shawn Ku’s latest feature, A Score to Settle starring Nicolas Cage, is now in theaters through RLJE Films. His feature directorial debut, Beautiful Boy (which he co-wrote), garnered Toronto International Film Festival’s prestigious FIPRESCI Prize. His cult favorite student short film Pretty Dead Girl, a musical necromance, is currently being developed into a full-length stage musical production with Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. Shawn wrote the screenplays Thanksgiving, which is going into production in Mexico this year, and Feel the Beat for Netflix, which is currently in production. As an actor, Shawn won an AFI FEST Jury Prize for his performance in the internationally acclaimed feature Samsara (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9/11). Prior to his career in film, he performed on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning productions of Miss Saigon, The King and I and Fosse. Shawn earned his MFA in Film Production from the University of Southern California and his undergraduate Chemistry degree from Harvard University.
My latest film, A Score to Settle, is a low-budget revenge flick, but at its heart it’s a character drama about a father and the extraordinary lengths to which he goes to heal his relationship with his son. An interviewer pointed out to me that this is not my first project about a parent-child relationship and as I thought about it, I realized that most of my directorial work – even projects that still haven’t made it to production – has circled around this subject matter. So I figured I should take a look at my dad and my relationship with him and dig into whatever shit I am clearly trying to process in my work.
My father was born in China and came to the United States for graduate school. That’s about all I know of his youth. He’s not a big sharer. I do know he went to school at Virginia Tech and that’s where he met my mother, married her, and had my sister. They moved a lot in the coming years for his continued education and employment, but finally settled in New Jersey, where I grew up.
He was not the best dad. It pains me to write that so straightforwardly. I don’t think this statement would come as a surprise to him (or to anyone that knows him), but still it seems harsh to put it out there. He’s not a bad person, just not a great father. He has no patience. He has an unfortunate temper. And he’s utterly intolerant of stupidity. He is thoughtful – not meaning he’s considerate, but that he’s always thinking deep thoughts. The truth is, he’s brilliant. He’s a true scholar; when there’s something he wants to know, he does copious amounts of research and thoroughly learns the subject. But for all his intelligence, he has no smarts when it comes to dealing with people. His rage has lost him and my mother more than a few friends. And he doesn’t appear to care that they’re gone from his life. “Good riddance,” he seems to say.
He’s terrible with kids. I think babies are fun for him, but by the time kids have a will of their own, he loses patience. He doesn’t know how to relate to them. Kids are not good at engaging in scientific conversation. Kids’ interests are too simple, too childish, and my dad has no idea how to come down to their level. When I was young, his idea of spending time with me was momentarily putting me on his lap so he could hold his palm to my forehead and measure the size of my brain. Then I was dismissed so he could watch the news. On Sunday mornings, he woke me up at an ungodly hour and dragged me to the community tennis courts. But rather than knock balls back and forth with me, he hit against one side of the wall and left me to hit on the other side. I hated tennis.
Learning from my father was worse. He had extremely high expectations of his children. I remember my sister calling home from college, confused and upset by her physics course. He explained the topic, but when she still didn’t get it, he blew up: “I don’t know why you don’t understand. It’s so simple.” He made her cry and I made a note-to-self: Don’t ask Dad for help with homework. I knew I couldn’t live up to his expectations. I wasn’t a scholar like he was; I didn’t care about science the way he did. He so wanted me, his only son, to share his passions. He so wanted to impart his Nobel Prize-worthy theories on gravity to me. But I didn’t care – partly because I didn’t understand, but mostly because I didn’t care enough to try. I mean, he didn’t care about anything I was interested in. He never came to any of my school shows; he didn’t care enough to even try or just show up for my sake.
I remember when a cousin of mine who was studying at Cambridge University came for a visit. He and my father were talking about some new scientific research that was being done – stuff that was totally over my head. Just two brainiacs chattering on and, well, Daddy lit up. He was enthusiastic and animated. He cared. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him so energized and engaged – certainly not with anything I had ever said. But the fact is, my father didn’t understand me. I don’t mean that in a teen, angsty way. It was just a fact. He was from an entirely different country and culture and time. He grew up as an obedient, dutiful Chinese son – and I was not that at all. I mean yes, I got good grades and played piano and went to an Ivy League school and got into an Ivy League medical school – but that’s just stereotypical first-generation Chinese-American kid stuff. But then I went and blew it all up. I skipped out on medical school, became a professional dancer, and turned gay (well, at least that’s how my parents saw it). Nothing about me made sense to him.
Tensions between my parents and me were high. They were on me to go back to med school and I wasn’t strong enough or sure enough to put the kibosh on the nagging. Truthfully, my mother was the bigger nagger – every other word out her mouth was some overtly aggressive or passive-aggressive comment designed to guilt me into going back. It was constant and unbearable. But my dad exercised his emotionless distance – the kind that made you feel like he was wishing he had had a different son, a son more like my scientific genius cousin, now a Cambridge graduate with an MD/PhD. Well, maybe I wished I had a different father.
I suffered from ulcer pains … just like my dad. I’d had them throughout high school and college. They would wake me up several times in the middle of the night, every night. I eventually just learned to fall back asleep sitting up, hunched over a pillow, holding my gut. In hindsight, I assume the pains were from the stress of being forced down a life path I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Back then, I just accepted them as part of my existence – part of who I was. Just something I inherited from my father.
I was living in Manhattan doing contemporary dance and my boyfriend at the time needed to move to a new apartment and he asked me if I wanted to move in with him. I thought, “Yeah, I do.” I realized I could pack up my room in my Midtown apartment and move to our new two-bedroom in Chelsea … and not tell my parents. I would just disappear among the millions of people living in New York. My parents would have no idea how to reach me, no idea how to find me, and I would be free from their controlling, overbearing hold. Manhattan was only 30 minutes from their New Jersey home – the home I grew up in – but they’d never see me again.
In the new place, I was happy for a few days, feeling free … but then my ulcer pains started getting worse. Much, much worse. One night, the pangs were unrelenting, unbearable. I didn’t know what to do. So I called my dad. He had his ulcer medication; that would help. He could tell from my voice that I was crying – that this was serious – so he jumped in the car to bring the pills to me immediately.
Then I realized he was headed to my old apartment. I got dressed and jumped on an uptown train, planning what I’d do. I’d just take the pills, thank him and he’d get back in his car and drive home. Piece of cake. I sat on the stoop and waited. His car pulled up and my mother stepped out. Shit. She came too? Daddy gave me the pills and there might have been some awkward attempt to comfort me, to express affection. A hand on my shoulder. A dog pat on my head. An unnatural verbalization of “I am always here for you” – something like that. Yeah, yeah. I was trying to hurry my parents off when my mother asked to use the bathroom. Fuck. I turned around and walked up the steps to the front door, digging my hands into my pocket for a key, but of course I didn’t have one. I had no choice but to turn around.
“I don’t live here anymore.” I really don’t remember saying anything else, though I’m sure there had to have been some explanation. All I remember is Mom’s tears, me sitting in the back seat as they drove me back to my new apartment, them watching me open the door to my new building before they drove off.
We never spoke of it again. It’s how my father deals with conflict. Bad things happen, horrible things are said and he stews about it, but then the next day, it’s gone. With big things, he’ll stew a bit longer – several days – but then when it’s over, it’s forgotten. He called to take me to lunch in Chinatown on Sunday – which was a normal thing. My dad loved to go to Chinatown on Sundays and get those Chinese dishes that you just can’t make at home. We sat at a table in that noisy restaurant, over a couple bowls of spicy beef noodle soup, and we didn’t talk about it. Back to the same old shit, I thought, for good or for bad.
But then he asked, “How’s Mike?” That was odd. We never actually spoke about the guys I was dating. He knew that they existed and he was cordial to them when he saw them, but they never came to a meal with us and we never talked about them. But here he was asking, “How’s Mike?”
“Fine,” I said.
He nodded and went back to slurping noodles. That was it. From the outside, it wouldn’t appear to have been anything momentous, but it was huge. He was making an effort. A really big effort. We had a lunch date pretty much every Sunday from then on. Probably to make sure I didn’t try to disappear again. On occasion, my mother would join us, but mostly it was just my father and I – the two of us, not talking a lot. And when we did talk, it was about stuff like whether I had enough money.
And then he’d ask, “How’s Mike?”
I’d say, “Fine,” and that would be the end of that. Until eventually I’d say, “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him in a while.” And then Daddy would stop asking about Mike … and eventually he’d realize that he should start asking about Ben.
My father doesn’t get a lot of credit for these small but significant efforts he makes. They’re easily overshadowed by his monumental outbursts and his huge interpersonal fuck-ups. He has yelled at my sister’s girls ten times too many; she holds that against him. He’s ruined too many Thanksgivings – one in particular, when he drove six hours to be there, then promptly started a screaming, yelling fight and got right back in his car and drove six hours home in a rage. My sister holds that against him, too. But she doesn’t give him equal points for the time back when she was in med school that he got in his car and drove six hours to Boston to replace her cracked car window and then turned right back around to drive six hours home – all while she was in classes, all without needing any face time from her or even a thank you. He doesn’t get credit for not smoking in the house when we were growing up and only smoking outside, even during freezing cold New Jersey winters. He doesn’t get credit for all he has sacrificed and saved and given to us. All the friends and family for whom he prepares taxes … because he thinks it’s fun. So I try to be more patient with him. I try to see past his infuriatingly gruff exterior. I try to see the efforts he’s making and appreciate him for them. I try to see that he was a much better dad than I’d ever given him credit for. And at times now, I find myself realizing how grateful I am that he’s my father.
Now that I’m a parent, I’m trying to be a better dad than he was. You’d think that should be easy. But I’ve fucked up a bunch – blown my top. I’m not the best dad either. But like my father, I’m trying. I just hope that decades from now, when my kids are griping about what an asshole I was, that one of them is able to see just one small but significant effort I made – going completely against my nature – to try to show them how important they are to me. To try to show them, like my dad did for me, how much I love them.