Portrait of Iconoclastic Eugene Tssui
Oakland director Kyung Lee chooses a maverick architect for her documentary.
Euguene Tssui, an unconventional subject.
Kyung Lee, like countless people before her, was more than impressed by her first encounter with one-of-a-kind East Bay architect Eugene Tssui.
“I was looking for a subject, a story, for my documentary film, and I heard him speak at an environmental conference,” the Oakland filmmaker recalls. “I was intrigued by his ideas, philosophies, designs, and clothing. I wanted to tell a story about underdogs, and what does it mean to be different in society, in your profession. So when I met him, I thought, ‘Yeah, I found my subject.’ ”
Six years later, Telos: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui is finished and beginning its life on the festival circuit. Alternately inspiring and sobering, the elegantly constructed one-hour film conveys both the genius and the frustration of an architect whose astonishing drawings are so far ahead of the curve that it’s been an ongoing struggle to find clients adventurous enough to follow.
“I guess if you’re a professional, that’s part of your job, to compromise your ideas, philosophies, and designs,” Lee muses. “I see him as a thinker, not just an architect. But as an architect, perhaps that’s just what’s he’s lacking. He’d like to get more recognition, and more success, in the [field] of architecture, but his compromising may be lacking. A visionary may not be practical, and maybe that’s a shortcoming if they are longing for success. But that makes him more interesting to me as a filmmaker. That makes him special as a character.”
Telos: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui opens with its solitary subject diving into an isolated mountain lake, a curious yet appropriate beginning for a film whose recurring themes include physical activity and nature. In late middle age, the four-time Senior Olympics gymnastics all-around champion embraces a daunting fitness regimen. Tssui’s connection to nature is reflected in his architectural designs, which have always incorporated principles of sustainable building, energy efficiency, and function-equals-form aesthetics.
A man who unambiguously and unapologetically dances to his own beat, Tssui is an engaging eccentric. The first clue is the colorful, occasionally futuristic clothing he designs, makes, and wears. He gives off the kind of vibe that provokes a wary response in strangers—even in the anything-goes Bay Area—until his charm and enthusiasm dispel their hesitancy.
Tssui, who lives in Emeryville, readily agreed to Lee’s request to make a documentary about him, but the filmmaker soon realized that the challenge would be getting past the surface. The architect may be consistently true to his muse and vision, but the ridicule he endured as an undergraduate, and the perpetual rejection as a professional, have led to a circumspection that tempers his self-confidence.
“It was easy for me to start a film, because he was very, very willing, and he made himself available for interviews and to be followed with a camera,” Lee says. “It took me a while to get to know him, and it took a couple years for him to trust me and open up about his true feelings, and how hard it is sometimes.”
Born in Tokyo, and a third-generation Korean-Japanese, Lee emanates trustworthiness and quiet confidence. She initially studied business before coming to the states and earning her master’s degree in media studies from San Jose State University. Lee worked at an advertising agency for a few years, then gravitated to postproduction. With co-editor credits on the docs Big Joy: The Adventure of James Broughton and The Illness and the Odyssey, she’s established herself as a freelance editor.
Much as she enjoys collaborating on other people’s films, Lee had a simmering ambition to spearhead her own project. She didn’t anticipate that Telos: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui would take six years, but now recognizes that that’s the nature of independent, self-funded documentary filmmaking.
The film has already achieved one of Lee’s goals, to give Tssui a measure of recognition and an opportunity to be acknowledged by his peers. As for the most important constituency, the audience, Lee has even loftier ambitions.
“My hope is that through the film people get inspired to be different, and are encouraged to try out their ideas and not worry about the reception,” Lee says. “And I’d like people to think about our built environment—our buildings, our surroundings. I think we should demand more in terms of the beautification of our surroundings.”
Telos: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui receives its Bay Area premiere in the San Francisco Green Film Festival, May 29–June 4 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., San Francisco, with the premiere at 4:45 p.m. May 31. For more information, visit www.TelosMovie.com.