'People Like Us' Director Leon Cheo Says, "Onus is on Minorities"

The web series People Like Us was produced in Singapore and depicts gay life on that island. It focuses on four men of three different Asian ethnicities. It was recently made available in the United States through Here TV. Since it's about the dating and love lives of these gay men, the reality and serious issues they face, it was probably appropriate that I talked with its writer-director Leon Cheo by phone the morning after Valentine's Day.

Leon Cheo was born in Singapore in June 1985. His ethnicity is Chinese. He received his Bachelor's degree at Chapman University in Orange County, California. He returned to southeast Asia where he attended other schools and academies before he moved back to Los Angeles two years ago. He now mainly works on commercials and PSA's, and short films.

In 2014, before he left, Action for AIDS Singapore, or AFA, approached Cheo about doing this web series. AFA wanted a series of videos that could go along with its online campaign targeted at the LGBT community to promote a sex positive and supportive dialogue about dating and HIV prevention, as well as other health issues. AFA wanted the videos to be educational and entertaining.

In June of that year, he was briefed on the web series. By December, Cheo had come up with a synopsis. He wrote six episodes, inspired by his own experiences and based on research. Each episode would only be about eight minutes in length. He began filming in March 2015. A casting call was put out online before then. Twenty to thirty actors came in. Cheo said he ended up using most, if not all of those actors in his series. The four main guys were the main focus of his discussion.

Josh Crowe plays Joel, the lead character who is out of the closet and looking for love. Crowe is Chinese but he grew up in Colorado. His character is supposed to be in his mid-twenties. Crowe is a new actor and Cheo said he liked that about him.

Irfan Kasban plays Ridzwan, the love interest of Joel. Kasban is a friend of Cheo and the role of Ridzwan was written specifically for Kasban who is Malay and a theatre-maker who writes, directs and designs stage-plays. Cheo said it's difficult to find a Malay person to play a gay role due to Malays being Muslim. Kasban was Cheo's first choice, and thankfully he agreed.

Hemant Ashoka plays Rai. Ashoka is Indian. He's the youngest of the four, barely 21. Cheo said he met Ashoka in a bar and loved the look in his eyes and sense of innocence as well.

Hemant Ashoka in "People Like Us'

Steven Lim plays Isaac. Lim is Chinese too and is not only the eldest of the four actors at age 41. He's also the most-experienced and most well-known actor. He's best recognized for his role in Cut Sleeve Boys (2007). Yet, Lim mainly does his own photography now. He's based out of Thailand. Cheo sent him the script and luckily Lim said yes.

Steven Lim in 'People Like Us'

Yes, two of the four main guys are Chinese, and in Singapore, Chinese people are the majority, but Cheo wanted there to be representation of Singapore's minorities. Malay and Indian people are the minorities, and it was important to have those characters in order to show the discrimination that minorities face, particularly in dating.

Talking about inclusion of Asian minorities led to a discussion of Asian representation in American movies and TV shows. Asian representation on television over the past couple of years has been fairly decent. There have been Netflix's Master of None and ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, shows that center on Asian characters. There has also been at least one Asian actor on almost every, hit, TV show from The Big Bang Theory to The Walking Dead.

However, American movies have not been so decent. American movies have been guilty of white-washing or taking Asian characters and hiring white actors to play those roles. When asked about it, Cheo said he wants more inclusivity, but he understands the business part that often leads to these decisions. Budgets for Hollywood movies can range in the hundreds of millions, so there's way more risk to them. There are exceptions. This year, two Oscar-nominated films did right by Asians. Garth Davis' Lion and Martin Scorsese's Silence.

Cheo said, "The onus is on minorities to make movies about themselves." It's obvious that Hollywood will not give opportunities to minorities, especially not to Asians. It's up to Asians to give themselves opportunities. Of course, several independent, Asian filmmakers have risen up and produced features that make it to one theater either in Manhattan or West Hollywood, or get some kind of small recognition.

Asian films with gay characters have also risen up. Cheo said he's friends with the directors of two such films from last year, Spa Night by Andrew Ahn and Front Cover by Ray Yeung. The onus isn't only on minorities to make movies about themselves, but the onus is on all of us to support those independent films. Hopefully, supporting such films and their filmmakers will lead to Asian directors getting more power and money like Ang Lee, M. Night Shyamalan, James Wan, Justin Lin or Park Chan-wook. Empowering Asian people behind the cameras can therefore empower Asians in front of the cameras.

Cheo said filmed his series in six days, which is about an episode a day. He had a couple of days of rehearsal. He had a great First Assistant Director. He didn't rush through it or had many problems. Things went smoothly while doing principal photography, which is surprising given that Cheo shot all on location in actual bars, restaurants and bathhouses in Singapore, even exteriors on the actual streets and markets. Cheo said he wanted to archive these real locations in and around Singapore's gay community. He even steals a shot on a bus and does so romantically.

Cheo noted English subtitles are burned onto the episodes, despite all the dialogue being in English. Even though English is the dominant language used in education and business in Singapore, Cheo said most people speak what he called "Singlish," which is an Asian-accented English. Singapore is a melting pot of languages. Most people there are bilingual, but he said Singlish can be difficult for non-Americans to comprehend.

Cheo said he was inspired by shows like the UK version of Queer As Folk and HBO's Looking. He said he didn't want his series to be too long. He wanted it to be as standalone as possible, but he did save some material for a second season. He's in discussions to do a second season, but nothing is confirmed yet.

Right now, the series is playing on Here TV and at festivals. He's watching The Americans and Penny Dreadful. Of all the Oscar-nominated films, he's only seen La La Land and Arrival. He's not a fan of the former but he is a huge fan of the latter and its director Denis Villenueve. He's working on a debut feature script, as well as a short film on immigration and identity.

For more on Leon Cheo, go to https://leoncheo.com/.
Follow Leon Cheo on Twitter.
To read my review of People Like Us, click here.
To learn more about the series, go to http://www.gayhealth.sg/plu/.
You can also like the series' Facebook page.

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