H.P. Mendoza‘s musical “Fruit Fly” was filmed in San Francisco’s famously gay neighborhood of the Castro. It premiered at the Castro Theatre in March 2009, and will return there for two nights next week.
The 93-minute film is pure Mendoza: Wrapped in a raunchy script, ’80s synth-pop and colorful characters is an insightful exploration of gay and Asian identity – and of the Castro itself.
“I used the subject of what is a ‘fag hag’ to talk about identity,” said the 33-year-old filmmaker, sitting in the quiet kitchen of his Mission District flat where he lives with his partner, Mark Del Lima, a designer and animator. “The movie explores the gay community, specifically the Castro, which is really a gay white boys’ town, a place where misogyny is rampant and racism is unspoken.”
In “Fruit Fly,” the San Francisco native’s directorial debut, Mendoza traces the journey of one woman trying to find her biological mother. The woman, played by L.A. Renigen, is a performance artist who finds herself going to gay bars at night and getting labeled a fag hag.
The idea for “Fruit Fly” came about while Mendoza was making the rounds at film festival parties for his earlier musical, “Colma,” a semiautobiographical take on what it was like living in a city better known as the resting place for the dead. (Mendoza wrote the music and script, and Renigen had a key role.)
“Time and again, men would come up to L.A. Renigen at these parties and say, ‘You remind me of Margaret Cho,’ who is the face of fag hagdom,” said Mendoza. “Because (L.A.) was Asian American and she was at gay bars, she had this label of fag hag. There is something degrading about the term, not the fag part but the hag part.”
He added, “Gay men will say the term is an act of reclamation, like using the n-word. They say they have been oppressed so they can oppress. But it’s not a word women want to be called. So the movie looks in subtle ways at stereotypes and biases – against women, against Asians.”
Mendoza, who is Filipino American and grew up with a love of scoring music to everything, particularly his older brother’s video games, is unabashedly drawn to sensitive subjects and contrarian thinking. When someone tells him a film is lame, he wants to see it. (Such was the case recently with the movie “Trash Humpers,” which he found to have a “true artistic sentiment.”) When “Colma: The Musical” was called weird by some, he wanted to go even weirder.
“When ‘Colma’ came out, people would ask me, ‘Why don’t you make a standard musical?’ and ‘Why does it have to be so weird?’ ” Mendoza said with a laugh. “So then I go and make a synth-poppy gay musical with a Filipina fag hag in the lead.”
Turning serious, he said, “I look at it like the more niche a story is, the more universal it becomes.”
Mendoza’s films are garnering attention and acclaim: “Fruit Fly,” a $35,000 film funded in large part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, won the audience award for best narrative feature at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. “Colma,” made for $15,000, was hailed as an “itty-bitty movie with a great big heart” and won a number of special jury prizes at film festivals.
Mendoza, who writes music and screenplays, directs and acts, has a half-dozen projects in various stages of development. There is the script about the Catholic primary school he attended in San Francisco, complete with the gigantic flash cards the nuns used to hold up warning about such “works of the devil” as masturbation and being gay. For that project, he’s written five songs, including a rendition of “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place.”
Another script, tentatively titled “Clockwise,” is about Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage measure. And he has written a nonmusical, noncomedic script called “I Am a Ghost.” He will make whichever is funded first.
“I have a feeling that will be the ghost movie,” said Mendoza, who is eager to add nonmusicals to his repertoire. “When I say I want to make a comedy about Proposition 8, people look at me and say, ‘You think that is funny?’ And I say, ‘Yes, trust me, it’s funny.’ Absurdity is funny.”
His most current film, being submitted to festivals now, is “Great Hymn of Thanksgiving,” a musical about U.S. torture policy – “you know, love, romance, Dick Cheney.”
Smiling his wry smile, he said, “I’m sticking with light.”
Read more: H.P. Mendoza’s FRUIT FLY finds its wings.