When I was going to high school in Montreal as a 15-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong, I remember meeting Nick, a fellow 11th grader, who had brain cancer. I remember he went through a surgery, and after the summer of Grade 11 he never got to return to Grade 12. Nick’s death really haunted me then… and decades later, I still wonder if I had brain cancer as a teenager and only one year to live, what would I do?
That was the inspiration for my latest feature film, Last Summer of Nathan Lee, which I conceived with my writer friend Dennis Escobedo during the Summer of COVID 2020.
Essentially, Last Summer of Nathan Lee became a mockumentary / found footage teen comedy about Nathan Lee, who finds out he has brain cancer at 18, refuses to die a virgin and wants to live his life to the fullest. His queer best friend, Dash, creates a documentary to memorialize his final summer. At the heart, it’s a film about friendship and love… and that love is friendship.
I met Harrison Xu, the lead actor who played Nathan, when he was 16 in Vancouver where I was casting and making a short film for the Vancouver Asian Film Festival in 2011. Harrison later came down to LA for college and still had not booked a leading role in a feature film or TV series until Nathan Lee.
Because I knew Harrison was talented, when Dennis and I were conceiving Nathan Lee, I told Dennis that he should write Nathan for Harrison. I wanted them to meet… and I remember the three of us getting together in the summer of 2020 in my backyard and talking about creating the film together.
Dennis finished the script and I rounded up Natasha Tina Liu and Aaron Guest, both actors I had either worked with or auditioned, and with whom I wanted to work again. I simply offered them the parts.
Growing up queer and API in North America, I know that historically there were very few films and shows—almost none—featuring API males, not to mention queer API people, who are really an after-thought for mainstream North American culture. In my works, because I am a queer and API single dad with a 7-year-old half Chinese and half Korean son, I feel imperative to have API males and queer API characters as protagonists, and hence Nathan Lee also centers on the friendship of two API teens, one queer and the other straight.
We made the film when COVID mildly retreated in the summer of 2021, and finished the film in the beginning of 2022. It wasn’t until March of 2023 that we got the world premiere at San Francisco’s CAAMFest and opened the film to glowing reviews from local critics. Still, I wasn’t able to secure a distribution deal that I was happy with. A quarter of a decade later, it felt like déjà vu of my first feature Shopping for Fangs which premiered at TIFF in 1997. It was simply too ahead of its time.
Like my first feature, I chose the self-distribution route for Last Summer of Nathan Lee because I know, as a filmmaker having worked with distributors for three decades, I am most passionate to get this film to the light of day. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey and help me spread the word on Last Summer of Nathan Lee, which will have its exclusive Canadian theatrical run at Carlton Cinema, one of my favorite cinemas in Toronto.
On Friday October 20, Last Summer of Nathan Lee will have its exclusive US theatrical run in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal.
On November 22, Last Summer of Nathan Lee will stream exclusively on SVOD on AAM.tv and TVOD on Amazon Prime.