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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 31, 2003

'Soap' based on Hawai'i hostess bar experience

• 'Hula Girl' next from LeapFrog Productions

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Cast members of "Soap Girl," a movie about massage parlors in Los Angeles.

Leapfrog Productions

Actresses Kerry Liu, Ginni Ramos and Gina Hiraizumi with director Young Man Kang learn about hostess bars from Tomiko Lee.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

'Soap Girl'

Premieres Feb.14

The Art House at Restaurant Row


Tomiko Lee worked inside the Korean hostess bars in Honolulu as a young woman, and eventually came to own one. Fifteen years later, she serves as executive producer of "Soap Girl," a movie about massage parlor workers in Los Angeles.

The independent film, inspired in part by Lee's experience in the hostess bars, premieres in Hawai'i next week at The Art House at Restaurant Row. Lee used profits from her bar earnings to help finance the film.

Her son Dennis James Lee, also a producer, plays an extortionist in the movie. Followers of Hawai'i's TV and stage scenes may recognize him from his performing credits in "Magnum, P.I.," "Hawai'i Five-O," "Dreamgirls" at the Hawai'i Theatre and "Evita" at Diamond Head Theatre.

After producing indie films in Hollywood for about four years, Dennis Lee says he had a plan: to make a movie with independent spirit and cultural ties, attracting enough notice to get him into big-budget films.

"I met the director, Young Man Kang, and we talked about stuff we wanted to do," he said. His mother suggested a story about massage parlor girls of Los Angeles "because not everybody knows their story, that these people are human beings, just like the Korean hostess bar girls."

The director bit, and the Lees had themselves a movie.

The LeapFrog Productions film, budgeted at $1 million and shot in the Korea Town area of Fairfax in Los Angeles, could as easily have been set along Ke'eaumoku Street or Kapi'olani Boulevard, an area Tomiko Lee knows from within. She says some of the setups in "Soap Girl" came from her familiarity with the hostess bar scene in Hawai'i.

"When I first came to the U.S. from Korea I was 18 and a vulnerable young girl, just like Maya in the movie," said Tomiko Lee. "I was in Denver, Colorado, for three years before coming to Hawai'i, and like Maya, I was idealistic, falling in love easily, and experienced losing someone I loved. I was alone in a merciless word, without a trade or career skills. I ended up at a hostess bar.

"I earned my way up to be a bar owner and many years later, maybe 25 years, I had my own nightclub and bar, but I also was an entrepreneur — so I got out, 15 years ago."

The central character in "Soap Girl," Maya, is a drifter who finds employment, camaraderie and eventual love in the massage salon after suffering a personal tragedy. The film includes a backstory on organized crime in Korea Town.

Dennis Lee said the "scrub down, rub down" business shown — customers are soaped and showered before getting a body massage — is typical in existing massage operations. Some are fronts for illegal prostitution.

"What's interesting is that what used to be only in Korea Town now has spread out west, to Beverly Hills," he said. "And there's an underlying tension between Koreans, blacks and Hispanics now."

Kang, the director, who also worked on the movie's script, "knows a few girls who worked in the parlors," he said. "Some elements are taken from Korean bars, which have the same kind of hierarchy, a mama-san working with girl hostesses, and some gangster types; my character is a combination of Korean and Vietnamese gangland types."

Kerry Liu, who plays Maya, said the movie "should shed light on an interesting story never told before."

Though in the film Maya is attacked and forced into situations Liu does not approve of, the actor doesn't think the part demeans women.

"The movie shows Asian Americans have problems like any other race," said Liu, who lives in Los Angeles but has relatives in Hawai'i. "I would say that Maya isn't just any Asian female, and she has integrity. ... Koreans are not even on the radar, so the movie brings it all out."

Producer Tomiko Lee worked in Honolulu's hostess bars.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Dennis Lee said the depiction of an underground Korean mafia in "Soap Girl" is realistic, as is the cross-cultural massage crew.

"There are 'good' girls, like Maya, and others who would do more than massage," he said. "And there are extortionists out there, too.

As for reaction from those in the massage parlors, "in general, those in the biz haven't responded to our film," Dennis Lee said. "They don't want the recognition."

"Soap Girl" has stirred up some buzz in other places, though. It earned the 2002 Audience Award at the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival (along with Best Feature Award in the festival's Asian American Showcase).

The movie has also earned criticism from those who think it perpetuates a racial stereotype.

"I feel in order to stop stereotyping, we need to head straight on into the controversy, and show the humanistic side of life," Dennis Lee said. "Of course, this depends on the viewer. Some Asians are offended, wanting to push this film under. Others are happy to see a real story told."

The production boasts a number of Hawai'i ties. Dennis Lee attended Hawai'i Baptist Academy, graduated in 1982 from McKinley High School, and studied voice with Fred Lam and Eunice De Mello. Tony Young, who wrote the screenplay, attended the University of Hawai'i. Actress Ginnie Ramos attended Punahou School. Another actress, Gina Hiraizumi, has relatives in 'Aiea.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.

• • •

'Hula Girl' next from LeapFrog Productions

Dennis James Lee says a film about a hula competition is next on his agenda.

"I am now producing and writing a film called 'Hula Girl,' and we hope to launch it in Hawai'i in July," he said. "It's about two girls who enter a hula competition in Hawai'i; one wins, and goes through the trials and tribulations between families and a love interest."

He characterizes it as " 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' Meets 'The Beach,' " and he wants to peddle it as a studio film, meaning a larger budget for a potentially expanded audience.

His mother, Tomiko Lee, who runs their company called LeapFrog Productions from Hawai'i, disagrees with Dennis Lee's approach, thinking a modest indie film would better serve the project and get the story told faster. "We want to develop several projects for Hawai'i," she said.