A Twitter fight, queer survival skills, and coming out through film


Director Andrew Ahn shares some inside info on ‘Fire Island’, his biggest movie to date

Friday 24 June 2022 By Samantha Panepinto Photography courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Andrew Ahn is quick to smile, pensive and lighthearted all at once. Talking to him, it’s easy to see the pieces of his personality contained in his biggest-budget movie yet, Fire Island, from Searchlight Pictures.

The film is the love child of two cultural icons: the classic Britlit novel, Pride And Prejudice, which lent its plot to Joel Kim Booster’s screenplay, and the film’s eponymous queer vacation destination.

With so much visibility, it was only a matter of time before there was a Twitter drama. Shortly after the film’s release, on 3 June, the writer Hanna Rosin said in a now-deleted tweet, ‘#FireIslandMovie gets an F- on the Bechdel test in a whole new way. Do we just ignore the drab lesbian stereotypes bc cute gay Asian boys? Is this revenge for all those years of the gay boy best friend?’ (Rosin has since apologised.)

The conversation took off, with many rushing to defend the film. It centres queer Asian men, who are so often under- or misrepresented, noted Twitter user @reappropriate. Another user quipped that she wanted to be ‘half as drab as Margaret goddamn Cho on her worst day’, referring to Cho’s Mrs Bennet-inspired character, a lesbian who owns a house on Fire Island.


Ahn stayed out of it. ‘I didn’t want to stoke the fire,’ he told me, laughing when I asked about it. ‘It was happening without my help.’ Then, Bechdel herself weighed in. ‘Okay, I just added a corollary to the Bechdel test: Two men talking to each other about the female protagonist of an Alice Munro story in a screenplay structured on a Jane Austen novel = pass. #FireIsland #BechdelTest,’ she wrote on 7 June.

Ahn said he was ‘in awe’ of such a stamp of approval: ‘It’s such an important part of cinema studies. I’ve known about the Bechdel test for years, and to get a quote-unquote official corollary from Alison Bechdel just goes to show you how aware she is of the test’s limitations and its power. I’m very thankful for everyone defending us. And I think it’s very fun to be a part of a cultural conversation in that way.’

Ahn takes being part of the cultural conversation seriously. For him, the Bechdel test Twitter storm was the moment he realised Fire Island was larger than anything he’d worked on previously. ‘It’s hard for me to understand the real magnitude of this film,’ he said. ‘I’ve lived in the independent film world for so long, it feels strange because my job was the same. The only difference in this case was that we had more marketing money.’

Even without the big budget, Ahn’s films have been making an impact for a decade. His 2012 short film Dol was programmed at Sundance, and the accompanying essay he wrote was published by The Huffington Post. He intended to come out to his parents with the film, but ‘ended up coming out to the world’.


‘It was a significant moment for me both professionally and personally,’ he said of the film’s release. ‘That movie will forever be the most personal thing I’ll ever make. It’s hard for me to watch it. I really credit it for giving me my career. It shows people my point of view as an artist, got me to a great festival. I wouldn’t have made something like Fire Island if I hadn’t made that short film.’

Ahn’s parents, whom he’d cast as extras in the film partially to hold himself accountable to coming out to them, were receptive, despite some denial at first. ‘I’ll give credit to my parents that they were at the conversation stage,’ he told me. But he did have to tell them out loud, ‘I’m gay’, which he’d been trying to avoid.

Ahn believes his journeys as an artist and a gay man have always overlapped. In Fire Island, he and screenwriter-star Booster focused on the insight into human behaviour in Austen’s source material – and arrived at some truths that resonated deeply in the modern queer context.

‘It was really important for us to keep that theme of assumptions alive,’ he said. ‘I think it’s because Joel and I both understood very quickly that, as queer people, we’re very good at assessing the people around us. And I think it’s a survival skill. We have to figure out if the people around us are safe to be around. We’re good at judging other people. And then, we use that skill on each other, potentially to our detriment.’


Fire Island doesn’t shy away from these uglier aspects. Besides the lighter rom-com beats, the film touches on the fatphobia, anti-Asian racism, and materialism that are sometimes the reality in queer communities. ‘I wanted to emphasise both [the funny and the serious],’ Ahn said, ‘hoping they would stand in contrast, and that the comedy would be funnier and the drama would be more dramatic.’

As his film career grows, so too does his visibility in gay Asian American communities. It’s a great-power-great-responsibility situation – one he’s described as a version of the ‘rep sweats’. ‘There are gay Asian American people who are very invested in any form of media that gets made about us,’ he said. ‘I don’t take that lightly. At the same time, as an artist, it’s difficult.’

Ahn’s solution, as it is so often for queer people, is community. ‘All I can promise is a singular perspective. I can use the platform I have to help other filmmakers tell their perspective. I try to lighten the load by bringing others up to help me shoulder it. That’s part of having a healthy, inclusive media representation.’

If this means more queer retellings of classic literature and gay Asian American voices, we’re here for it.

As for Ahn, he’s not slowing down. He mentioned three projects he has in the pipeline, all in different genres that he’s excited to explore. ‘I’m just very happy to get this film out there,’ he said, ‘so I can move on to the next thing.’

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