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Amid anti-Asian discrimination, ‘Fire Island’ makers found queer joy

Bowen Yang, Joel Kim Booster and Andrew Ahn discuss their Hulu rom-com, which owes huge debts to Jane Austen and Margaret Cho

From left, Torian Miller, Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, Tomás Matos and Joel Kim Booster in “Fire Island.” (Jeong Park/Searchlight Pictures)
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Pride Month kicked off this year with the debut of a romantic comedy that already feels like an instant classic. An update of “Pride and Prejudice” set off the coast of New York, “Fire Island” swaps out the courtship games of the 19th-century English gentry for the often just-as-ritualized search for love among gay men today.

Early in the film, Noah (Joel Kim Booster) drops his phone in his friend Erin’s (Margaret Cho) pool, which means a week without Grindr during what may be the last of he and his chosen family’s annual visits to the gay destination. But Noah’s more focused on finding hookups for his bestie Howie (“Saturday Night Live” breakout Bowen Yang) anyway, despite Howie’s protests that the kind of intimacy he’s looking for is less physical than emotional.

“Fire Island,” now streaming on Hulu, is a love story made by hopeless romantics. Booster, who also wrote the movie, grew up partially home-schooled in the Chicago suburbs “worshiping at the altar of Nora Ephron.” He watched the 1995 “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth every year with his adoptive mother, and is a fan of the 2005 film adaptation with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (also a favorite of director Andrew Ahn). Loving rom-coms as a boy gave Booster “really outsize expectations for what love would look like,” he told The Washington Post. “That’s probably why I was single until I was 33.”

In the film (as in real life), Fire Island can be a gay utopia — or a walled-off fortress. Noah, Howie and their friends (Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos and Torian Miller) are at its outskirts, marked as Others in a social hierarchy that once proudly proclaimed “No fats, no femmes, no Asians.” “Fire Island” may well be the first mainstream movie to explore anti-Asian bias within gay circles — as well as its inverse, the fetishizing “rice queens.” So prevalent is the sexual racism that “it would be a miracle if any one Asian American person did not experience discrimination in the queer community,” Yang said. “We’re the only race that’s checked off in that little trio.”

“It damages you,” said Booster, who repeatedly saw anti-Asian sentiments as a youth figuring out his place in the LGBTQ+ community. Times are changing, he asserted, but only in that now “a lot of people keep those sorts of messages behind the curtain.” Booster’s own boyfriend, who is White, has heard complaints about Asian Americans from gay men who don’t know he has an Asian partner. “That’s why I wrote this movie,” Booster said, “to shed light on some of that.”

But “Fire Island” is also a story defined by queer joy. Ahn first read Booster’s screenplay about a year into the pandemic, when he hadn’t seen his friends in a long time. “I hadn’t hung out with them at a bar to dance, to drink, to be stupid,” he said, “and I saw in Joel’s script everything I was missing in my life.”

Review: ‘Fire Island’ puts a raunch-com spin on Jane Austen

Making a raunchy rom-com was a departure for Ahn, whose first two features were quiet, well-received indies. “I am very proud of my work on ‘Spa Night’ and ‘Driveways,’” he said, quipping self-deprecatingly, “I know some people fall asleep in them.” Booster, a “huge fan” of “Spa Night” — a sexual coming-of-age tale within Los Angeles Koreatown’s steam rooms — said Ahn “always felt like the most obvious choice for me.”

While “Fire Island” depicts a common queer Asian American experience, Booster doesn’t want the film to be considered a definitive encapsulation of that community. “This isn’t a movie [where] I was trying to represent everybody,” he said — a shirking of the burden of representation that he repeats in his upcoming Netflix stand-up special, “Psychosexual.”

The movie revives a trend among rom-coms of the 1990s, when classic texts were refashioned into modern-day stories. (Both Booster and Yang cite “Clueless,” based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” as a childhood touchstone.) But there’s another pop-cultural icon from that era just as crucial an inspiration: Cho, the pioneering comic and star of the 1994 sitcom “All-American Girl,” the first prime-time comedy about an Asian American family.

“I think every gay person on set had a moment with Margaret where they took her aside and told her how important she was to them,” Booster said. “It was a gauntlet of little gay boys just telling her how much she changed their lives — and I was one of them.”

Yang admired how Cho trusted that her idiosyncrasies would speak to the masses. “She was this bisexual Korean person from San Francisco who was able to broadcast so much relatability, humor and pathos, and yet would always end her sets with some message about self-love before that was even a mainstream concept,” Yang said. “This movie would not exist without her.”

Somewhat shockingly, then, Cho’s role — the surrogate mother whose house the 30ish gay friends stay at — was originally written for a man. The script had gender-swapped Austen’s Mrs. Bennet to “Aaron,” but when the actor dropped out and Cho asked whether there could be a role for her, Erin was born. “It just felt really special that she could be a part of this project to support and usher in this next generation of queer Asian American talent,” Ahn said. It turned out Cho, too, had parallel experiences on Fire Island, though the biographical tidbit that made it into the script is the one in which Erin checks a lover for crabs with the light from a flip phone.

If Cho’s casting was a foregone conclusion, the most challenging role to fill was Will, the aloof and snobbish Darcy character who eventually reveals a wellspring of decency and repressed passion. That’s the “hardest job” because “you have to start off not really liking him … and then you have to fall in love with him by the end,” Booster said. Complicating the casting process was the possibility that both Yang and Booster’s characters could end up with White men, which would send a mixed message for a film wrestling with Asian American desire and desirability.

“Will was not written with any specific race in mind,” Booster said. “How to Get Away With Murder” star Conrad Ricamora, who is Filipino and White, was the only Asian American actor seen for that role. “It just so happened that he was the best,” Booster said. “He was the only person that I tested with who made me [forget] my lines because I was so flustered. It’s just so easy to fall in love with him.”

But the most compelling relationship in the film is the platonic one between Noah and Howie. That’s likely by design, since the movie is a tribute to queer Asian American solidarity. Booster took care to include aspects of his eight-year friendship with Yang in the script, like the “E.T.”-like touching of fingertips that their characters use as their own private expression of love. As in the film, the duo sometimes communicate across the room with a look. That’s “something a lot of Asian men share with their queer Asian friends, that deep, intrinsic understanding of our experience and our hurt and our wants,” Booster said.

Yang, who admires and covets the gay Asian American community Ahn has cultivated in his L.A. hometown, said he hopes to find one as consummate around himself. “I always tell Andrew I need an Asian boyfriend. I need to not have to explain so many things about myself, in the same way that working on a queer Asian film was so liberating in terms of dropping that weight that I walk around with every day.” The relief is palpable.

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