Nonfiction by Wyatt Ong
Papa, the movies, and me
Every time a Hollywood blockbuster rolls around, I line up faithfully for my ticket on opening weekend. Although he’s been gone for the last seven years, a trip to the movies is a date with my dad.
Papa and I never went to the theater when I was growing up in the Philippines; I brought him the movies at home instead. Born to parents in their mid-forties and with siblings ranging from eight to 16 years older than me, I struggled to find interests Papa and I, almost five decades apart, could share.
In the earliest years, when I was seven or eight years old, he would take our whole family for walks after dinner. My task was to review the Chinese multiplication tables as I kept in step with him. If I paused for more than a second, I would have to start from the beginning. I loved to hold his hand, skipping beside him while shouting out the times tables to the night sky. I never wanted to mess up when Papa was the taskmaster. His furrowed brow would tell me he wasn’t pleased.
I never interrupted the conversations of grown-ups. I was jealous of my brother Jason and my sister Joliot, who talked basketball and soccer with Papa, and woke up early to watch World Cup matches with him. There was my other sister Monique, who always had a funny story to tell, something clever to say. On the other side of the world in America, there was the telephone presence of our oldest brother Oliver, who started studying to be a doctor when I was just a baby. But once we all started seeing movies together, something clicked.
I brought him a new one every weekend, without fail. He loved noisy action movies the best, and no one could top James Bond. His all-time favorite gift was the complete James Bond set we gave him one Father’s Day. When he died years later, I found the DVD still in its special edition wrapper in a separate pile among his possessions, stored away from the chaos of our movie collection.
Papa’s movie reviews came in the form of one of three single lines in Hokkien, the Chinese dialect we spoke at home. We rarely spoke while the movie played.
“Pai kua, pian lang.” (Awful, a scam of a movie.) Count Mr. and Mrs. Smith, GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra, and the Hayden Christensen-starring Jumper among the unlucky titles.
“Ham-ham.” (Just fine.) Johnny English, Black Hawk Down, The Italian Job, National Treasure: Book of Secrets were among the middle of the pack.
“Bue pai.” (Not bad.) High praise disguised in cool nonchalance. There were the Bond and Bourne movies. Gladiator, Taken, Inception, The Dark Knight, the Mission: Impossible movies. He even liked Snakes on a Plane.
I had a personal tally in my mind: how many movies could earn Papa’s coveted “bue pai” status? His preferences were independent of any critic or hype. The “bue pai” pile was an unpredictable, kooky collage of all kinds of movies. Would a corny gem like Snakes make the cut?
I wasn’t disappointed. There it was, seen as the credits rolled – the dimple on his left cheek, that rare grin that told me there was something worth smiling about.
“Not bad,” said Papa in Chinese. Bue pai.
Whenever I spied the dimple, it was a good day.
We tore through a whole library of TV series. Our favorite was 24, which we watched at top volume, to my mom’s chagrin. After every episode, I’d look over at my dad hopefully.
If the night was young, the snacks were plentiful, if my older siblings were home for the holidays, these were good signs.
“Play one more,” he would call out, to resounding cheers.
If he was feeling poorly, we would stop and go to bed early. Mostly this happened in Season 8, when my dad’s heart problems got worse. We could only do two or three episodes at a time. There was less gasping and cheering and pillow-pounding. 24 was different this time, and so was my dad.
I worried about him endlessly. When the doctor told him to cut back on fatty foods and sodium, I hid all of our old favorite snacks so he couldn’t find them anymore. One time, when he asked my mom to make him his favorite instant noodles for movie night, I made her add only half the seasoning packet. He left the noodles uneaten, complaining angrily that they were bland. We did not speak the rest of the night.
It was up to me to keep the potato chips away, trim the fat from his pork before it was served to him, hide the ice cream until it was gone.
My family loved to eat, spearheaded by our patriarch, our fearless leader, himself a lover of fine foods. He grew up the grandson of working-class Chinese immigrants and made his way to success from scratch, building his own Utopia – the name of his pride and joy, his own packaging company. When he attained some measure of his goals, he took his family to see the world and in the process, enjoy a global feast. He loved nothing more than Chinese food, steaming hot and fragrant, slow-cooked to a glossy, savory finish. Jumbo steamed prawns, salt-and-pepper fried crabs topped with glistening garlic chips, pork belly stewed in garlic and herbs and dripping with its own fatty sauce.
One dinnertime, Papa and I got into a tug of war over an off-limits plate of deep-fried crab. He had been making his move towards it all evening. I wanted to put my foot down. But in 22 years I had never, not once, dared to raise my voice to him. None of us ever did. Eventually, the crab landed on his plate.
Red-faced at being thwarted, feeling impossibly helpless, I lashed out.
“You are so...incredibly...HARD-HEADED!” I shouted.
He didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. We kept eating. We finished the meal in silence. We didn’t watch another movie together for a while.
Papa’s TV habits became an indicator of his health to me. In all other ways, he was inscrutable. This is a man who insisted on seeing the doctor alone that time they found a lump in his liver because he did not want his family to hear any bad news (it later turned out to be benign). This is a man who went to work every day no matter how poorly he was feeling.
I would listen outside his door for the sound of machine guns, things exploding – telltale signs he was enjoying another blockbuster. If he was ill, he would be in bed after dinner.
Sometimes, his grandsons would visit and they would all watch his favorite Chinese period drama together. He would conduct the boys, beaming with approval while they bellowed the famous theme song to him.
“Wan sui, wan sui, wan, wan sui!” they chanted, kneeling at his feet, repeating the phrase they heard on TV uttered by citizens in deference to the emperor. Ten thousand years, a wish for long life, a benediction to a revered king.
Once, a serious lung infection landed him in the ICU for a week. He was so bored in recovery, my siblings and I wondered if we could bring him any DVDs. I worried that the action flicks he loved would be too much for his weak heart.
Weeks later, he started rewatching his James Bond DVD at home. I was relieved.
“Dr. No again?” I teased, when I saw Sean Connery back on screen. Papa didn’t say much, but kept watching.
I took note when he favored a specific actor. Connery, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, Jason Statham, and Clint Eastwood were on his diverse list of all-time favorites. “That Clint Eastwood,” he would tell me, for example, “they don’t make it like him anymore. He could act.”
He followed Eastwood’s career all the way to his directorial features. Papa loved Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, and Gran Torino. It will always hurt to remember that he never got to see J. Edgar, Sully, American Sniper, or even Jersey Boys.
When Hollywood and Hong Kong teamed up, it was like the Super Bowl. Papa beamed with pride at Asian excellence on the global stage and was a fan of action hitmaker John Woo. In his movies, our worlds collided. Icons like Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung intersected with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage and Mira Sorvino. In my mind that brought Papa one step closer to all the things I enjoyed that I knew he did not – musicals like Grease, romantic dramas like City of Angels, comedies like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
“Papa looks just like Chow Yun-fat!” I trilled one night after watching The Replacement Killers, a Woo-produced cops-and-assassins movie by Antoine Fuqua.
“Sipsip (butt-kisser)!” my sister Joliot teased me. “Last week you said Papa looked like Al Pacino. Before that, you said he looked like Robert De Niro. So which is it?”
I always thought Papa secretly liked it when I compared him to those movie stars. The dimple always came out when I told him that.
Entertainment to me is divided by an invisible line – before and after 2011, the year he died. I often catch myself wondering what he would think of a certain actor or some new franchise.
Would he like The Avengers? He had seen Iron Man twice.
Would he like Creed? Would he have enjoyed seeing an aging Rocky Balboa on the big screen?
What would I pick for him on Netflix? Would he like Making a Murderer?
All those questions really came down to one. Would he be proud of me? I was an entertainment editor at a digital publication. It had taken a while to help my mother, whose dream was for me to become an accountant, understand what I did for a living. Would Papa have seen it as a frivolous career?
I would never have the answers to any of these questions, about the Avengers or about me. But the memory of my father, his pop culture savvy, his penchant for cheesy action movies, his soft spot for Jack Bauer, informed my approach to my work, piece by foundational piece.
Cheering on the new Han Solo reveal on assignment at a Star Wars event in London, I spoke to him, an imaginary conversation offered up to the heavens, where I could not reach and could not follow. “There’s a new Han Solo, Papa,” I said. “But no one’s better than Harrison Ford.”
Strategizing with a young reporter, Vernise, about an upcoming Matt Damon interview for Jason Bourne, I told her to pretend she was asking questions for my dad. “Ask the questions a fan would ask,” I advised. “No matter how they’re reviewed, every movie has its audience.”
I tell her about how a good movie can create powerful memories, how a fandom can form, stretch, and test relationships. How the interviews we did helped illuminate the pop culture we consumed by the bucket, by the season. How the movie experience can heal loss just like time.
Five years after my father’s death, I stepped into an interview with Antoine Fuqua, in Singapore promoting The Magnificent Seven.
I ended my interview early to tell Fuqua something special about his first movie. I grasped his hand and thanked him for giving us The Replacement Killers, for one perfect evening in the summer of ‘98. I told him that all the gunshots woke up my mom, that my dad and I laughed, that we had popcorn. I told him my dad also loved Shooter, and he would have loved Southpaw and The Equalizer. I told him that I was there today for and because of my dad, Johny.
Fuqua must have thought I was crazy, but he very kindly answered that my story was why he loved movies, because it brought people together. I told him that my father knew it too, years before he knew how his story would end, how mine would continue.
In an alternate universe, I have a different ending for this story. I grow up to be a successful writer with a book deal and speaking gig on the side. A framed photo of me interviewing Clint Eastwood hangs in my father’s study in a place of honor. Well into his late seventies, Papa and I continue our weekend movie dates. He takes his whole family to see Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Then he goes back to see it with his Sunday temple buddies.
But that is not my reality, so I think of this instead. Sequel after sequel, one action film after another, I show up at the movies without fail. I whisper my father’s name to the heavens, where I cannot reach and cannot follow. My heart will always squeeze. But there is comfort to be found in the theater, because I know there always be another movie to see.
Wyatt Ong is a writer based in California and is the former lifestyle and entertainment editor of Rappler.com.