Justin Lin gets the credit for making Asian America cinema hip, but some recent DVD discoveries provide concrete proof of our cultural amnesia..
Ritzy dresses and fancy suits danced across the red carpet, looking pretty for photographers, before proceeding to a lavishly adorned night honoring the accomplishments of Asian Pacific Americans in Entertainment.
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Justin Lin gets the credit for making Asian American cinema hip, but some recent DVD discoveries provide concrete proof of our cultural amnesia.
I write this as Justin Lin returns to Sundance with the premiere of his latest film Finishing the Game. Five years ago, Lin cemented his place in the American indie universe and in Asian American film lore when his screening of Better Luck Tomorrow incited a verbal ruckus over positive and negative images of Asian American teens. One audience member angrily lambasted the film. Roger Ebert stood up and chimed in. Sensing a winner, MTV Films proudly bought the distribution rights.
It's from that bottom-up passion that Better Luck Tomorrow developed into the "big thing" of Asian American cinema. A grassroots campaign across college campuses helped it gross an astonishing $27,751 per-screen average in its opening weekend, and became the standard by which all subsequent Asian American features would be compared. It's as if Asian American cinema as we know it today began in 2002.
I was a few years into college when Better Luck Tomorrow broke onto the scene. All I knew about Asian American cinema at the time were the films of Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, and having been assigned to interview Justin Lin and review his film for the college newspaper, I dug into the VHS section of a local video store and unearthed Lin and Quentin Lee's 1997 feature Shopping for Fangs, which I found quirky and fun, but which I brushed aside as simply an oddity in Asian American cinema: a Tarantino-esque exercise in style.
Turns out I was badly wrong. But I was so caught up in B.L.T. fever (remember those pins?) and so new to the scene that I was unable to see that Better Luck Tomorrow was not the first film to depict Asian Americans as hip, troubled, and dangerous, but was simply (though significantly) the film to develop, professionalize, and package together certain trends that had been tested in the Asian American film festival world for years.
This week, on back to back nights, I watched Chris Chan Lee's Yellow (1998) and Eric Koyanagi's Hundred Percent (also 1998), the latter which was just released on DVD by the very indie home video distributor Pathfinder Home Entertainment. Yellow came out on DVD six years ago courtesy of Vanguard Cinema, but had slipped my attention until very recently, when Lee's sophomore effort, Undoing, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Together, the two films represent to me the crucial bridge between the independent spirit of Wayne Wang's 1980s films and the Hollywood-grade features of the past few years (Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, Red Doors). In many ways, Yellow and Hundred Percent (as well as Shopping for Fangs) contain the shortcomings of both styles, but also the attractions of each, and for that reason, they merit rediscovery.
Koyanagi's Hundred Percent loudly announces its arrival in the opening shot. No Angel Island introductions, no shots of seedy Chinatown; just three guys making a hustle, playing dominoes, eating "Asian soul food," and sippin' the green bud. As our rasta-hero Slim declares, "It's a beautiful day in Venice."
Like the protagonists in Wang's seminal Chan is Missing and in the fiction of Frank Chin, everyone in Hundred Percent -- from the nervous aspiring actor to the blinded-by-love coffee shop waiter to the ultra-cool pothead -- is deeply aware of previous representations of Asian American men in pop culture. Slim (played by Darion Bosco) has a psychedelic poster of his hero George Takei in his room, while Isaac (Dustin Nguyen) channels Bruce Lee to win over a seductive New Yorker played by Tamlyn Tomita. One villain -- dressed in a weird hybrid of traditional Chinese shirt and gangsta threads -- is appropriately named Mingus, probably a reference to the very mixed-race (including Chinese) genius of jazz.
In one of the few mainstream reviews of the film I could find, Ted Shen of the Chicago Reader dismisses the film for doing the Tarantino thing without coming to any new conclusions. While he gives props to Asian Americans for "trot[ting] out their neuroses," he overlooks Koyanagi's clever appropriation of the Tarantino formula (intersecting stories, hipster jargon, irrelevant conversations about pop culture) to draw attention to the ways in which Asian Americans are in dialogue with their stereotypes beyond just trying to be "in" with the indie game.
For example, in one memorable sequence, the film cuts back and forth between the story of aspiring actor Troy (played by Garrett Wang) who is forced by an acclaimed film director to be more Oriental in an action scene, and the story of Isaac, who voluntarily ups the Bruce Lee factor to impress a girl. That the film so blatantly says that Asian America's association with kung fu is both good and bad is in my mind a step in the right direction. Beyond criticizing the "negative" association, the film highlights the ways Asian Americans are actively negotiating stereotypes and manipulating them for their own interests. The nunchucks at the center of the story are more than the film's handy and obvious MacGuffin, but a symbol of wealth, romance, and empowerment.
If Hundred Percent shows Asian Americans as integral parts of a multi-cultural neighborhood, Lee's Yellow draws our attention to an ethnic enclave, but not the one we're used to. A quote on the DVD cover attributed to Roger Ebert reads, "Fascinating! A different kind of culture shock," which shows how Asian Americans are still exoticized in the mainstream critical community, but also highlights the fact that Lee has indeed captured a world few outside of Koreatown has seen before.
For those who know Koreatown, the sense of place is felt vividly throughout the film, from the mid-Wilshire one-story dwellings to the corner liquor stores. My favorite such scene is where Lee hilariously captures the mood of bored Korean American teens at an Asian restaurant, patiently waiting for their parents to finish dinner.
But then the film suddenly goes beyond an authentic ethnography of minority spaces to a full-on celebration of what it means to be young and Korean American. One teen spots a comrade across the restaurant, who eyes another one across the room. In rock-star slow motion, Lee shows each of them excusing themselves from the table and strutting their way like reservoir dogs on the mean streets for a quick cigarette break in the restroom. It's a euphoric moment of pop cultural, interethnic mashing, but more importantly, it's a beautifully, playfully rendered moment where excess becomes jubilation and post-modern referencing becomes a second-generation calling-to-arms.
In both films, the pun on the word "yellow" becomes crucial. Both meanings come from the American stockpile of reactionary neologisms (old film Westerns and old racial epithets), but both come to the fore here as proclamations of Asian American identity. Both films take masculine courage as a theme, with Asian Americans taunting each other for being a model minority. In Hundred Percent, Troy's catch-phrase is, "Say it motherfucker. Say I'm too yellow to pull this trigger." "Yellow" is then both a masculine and a racial obstacle that the characters must learn to overcome.
Consequently, Asian American crime is important to both films. Across the two films we see robbery, drug-use, and concealed weapons. How both films resolve the questions of crime becomes the question. Here, the role of love, family, and responsibility emerge and Asian American crime is curtailed by tradition. In that way, perhaps Better Luck Tomorrow is more unflinching and daring. But if we're oblivious to Asian American film history and we're unwilling to uncover Asian American classics released on DVD by obscure distributors, we have no real idea where Asian American cinema has gone and where it's going. The DVDs for Yellow and Hundred Percent sport sub-par, non-anamorphic transfers (although Hundred Percent does have a nice commentary and deleted scenes which properly flesh out the female characters), but to complain is to succumb to the logic of Hollywood's special edition digital remasters currently out of the reach of independent Asian American filmmakers.
The American Film Institute just announced that it's going to compile a new list of Top 100 American films every ten years, and attached to the press release is a list of 44 culturally significant films from the past 10 years that are now up for consideration in their next canon. That none of them are Asian American goes without saying; that such canonical lists push Asian American classics further back into the dust-bins of history is the real story.
Date Posted: 1/26/2007