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'The Motel': Small Film, Big Dreams

Yet with 122 feature movies shown over 10 days at Sundance, the competition for a director like Kang is intense. But the 34-year-old Korean American from New York remained generous, upbeat, relatively Zen, even as he pulverized his gum. "Whatever happens," he says, chomping, "I made the movie I wanted to make."

Yes, he wants his movie to be liked. He dreams it will be loved. He and his producers also want to sell it to one of 30 buyers and distributors trolling the festival -- not just for the money (to pay back the investors, Esther and Richard Shapiro, who made their fortune off the "Dynasty" TV series), but for the film to break free and appear in a cineplex or cable outlet near you.

Director Michael Kang clowns around with 8-year-old actress Lexy Chang at the premiere of his film "The Motel" at the Sundance Film Festival. (Douglas C. Pizac -- AP)

Arteta, director of previous Sundance premieres such as "Chuck and Buck" and "Star Maps," says, "In independent film, you have to put your best foot forward. There is no second chance. There is one chance."

A few hours later, Kang stands outside his premiere at the Liberty Theatre, surrounded by family, friends, producers, publicists. His brother offers a reporter a business card that reads: "Peter H. Kang: My brother, Mike, is the director."

It has been a long road. Raised in Providence, R.I., Michael Kang wrote fiction as a kid, then after graduating from New York University he made short films, about sushi chefs as assassins and documentaries about bicycle messengers. He worked at a yoga center, an ice cream factory, a restaurant.

Kang won a spot in the Sundance Institute's screenwriter lab in 2002, where his script for "The Motel" won the prestigious NHK award. Then he got a seat at the Sundance filmmaker's lab the same year, where he honed his craft and hooked up with Arteta, one of the instructors, who agreed to produce his film along with partner Matthew Greenfield.

The theater has a good crowd for a 5:30 p.m. premiere, but there are still some seats available -- which is not great. Kang briefly introduces the film, and admits he has been having "anxiety dreams" about this moment for the past three weeks.

"The Motel" premieres. The audience laughs at the right moments. The theatre is overheated, but the crowd stays with the film. At its end, there is solid applause, but the place does not go nuts.

Kang brings to the stage the cast and crew. He answers some typical film fest questions -- Is this good for Asian American cinema? How much rehearsal time did you have? How did you find the kid to play Ernest? (In a Chinese language school at Columbia University.)

What are you going to do now? someone asks. "Get drunk," Kang says. Later, on Main Street, in the basement bar at the Moose, there is a cash bar and free chips, and an Asian American crowd of friends and cast, with cute women wearing "Got Sushi?" tiny tees and handsome men in designer jeans. Everybody is happy. But by its last screening yesterday, the film has not sold.

Because this is the deal: Kang has a quality movie, an ultimately sellable movie, but not a hot property, not a movie with indie pedigree or stars, not a movie with extreme violence or sex or politics or edge. It's a totally respectable $12 bottle of wine. One studio executive, who saw the movie but asked that he not be named, says, "I liked it. I just don't know what to do with it."

Steven Raphael, the film's selling agent, predicts "The Motel" will eventually find a distributor, and he'll be screening it for buyers in New York and Los Angeles. Asked how his Sundance experience has gone, Kang says, "I think everything is going to be okay."

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