Saturday, December 1, 2007

Commentary | "The Namesake" (2006)

This movie made me cry out of sadness and also, what I recognize looking back on what I felt watching it, as my own guilt. I think the way the Asian American experience tied in to this movie was the way it treated family relationships, and how the notion of family changes or translates when shifted into an American context and a new set of cultural values. It is so easy for the son to completely immerse himself in his white girlfriend’s family because it comes without the stigma of obligation or embarrassment. While I could feel myself frustrated with his character for not appreciating his own family, I recognized this same psychological tendency in myself and that’s what bothered me the most. This is not at all to say that white American families are not as close knit or don’t require as much devotion, but rather that I think the film comments on the faulty reasoning of second generation Asian American children like myself and their willingness to abandon or forget about their cultural roots.

Company Credits (via
Production Companies / Fox Searchlight Pictures, Cine Mosaic, Entertainment Farm (EF), Mirabai Films, UTV Motion Pictures
Distributors / Fox Searchlight Pictures (2007) (USA) (theatrical)

Commentary | "Better Luck Tomorrow" (2002)

Better Luck Tomorrow really hits close to home for me in terms of its representations of Asian Americans. In high school I definitely saw firsthand the dark side of living up to the “model minority” stereotype in America, so it was hard to separate the images I saw in the film from the personalities and lives of my own friends back home. I know that writer/director Justin Lin grew up in the same southern California suburbs as I did, so it was interesting to see how he may have interpreted his characters from people he knew as well, and more importantly, it made me wonder how people from backgrounds unlike the both of us might react to their characters.

However, I think a discussion on whether these types of characters are “good” or “bad” for the Asian American community kind of misses the point of this film. Overall, the representations of Asian Americans in Better Luck Tomorrow are not about stereotypes or counter-stereotypes themselves, but more about challenging both of those ideas by depicting characters who are multifaceted and really uncategorizable. In the end, these boys sort of capacity for evil transcends their ethnicity and is brought down to a human fault. I think the film comments well on the possibly disastrous outcomes of self-destructive ambition and in that sense is very thought-provoking.

Company Credits (via
Production Companies / Cherry Sky Films, Day O Productions Inc., Hudson River Entertainment, MTV Films, Trailing Johnson Productions
Distributors / MTV Films, Paramount Pictures

Commentary | "Kieu" (2006)

When we first meet the modern day Kieu, she appears to be an independent woman living a simple life alone in America. She spends her afternoons shopping for fresh produce and flowers, cooking dinner for herself, riding the bus. Her life is almost so boring that we probably wouldn’t look twice if she were a real person—which is why Kieu does such an amazing job of battling her invisibility, and as Vu Ha put it, getting an Asian American audience to open up a dialogue about the quiet experience of sex workers in our community. I felt that Ha's choice to do a narrative versus a documentary was actually more provoking with respect to this subject. Every story has to create its own world to some extent, and I think Kieu is a beautifully shot film that does justice to the sort of poetic tragedy of these women’s lives.

Though Kieu has escaped Vietnam, her family’s financial needs have forced her to essentially be captured again by the sacrifice she makes in order to survive. Kieu is forced to grapple with her own emotional journey—reconciling what she does to fulfill her obligations with her spirituality, trying to even out her sins with her good intentions. The most potent scene is when Kieu’s admirer turns up unexpectedly as a client in her massage parlor. What I liked most about it was the emotional exchange between the two characters, because their connection in this scene felt very real and true to the situation. When she says, “I don’t need you to judge me. You have a mouth just like the rest of them,” she’s not only talking to this man but also to the audience, challenging us to question our conscious and/or unconscious judgments and how understanding these women’s perspective might change them.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Independent (Dir. Vu Ha)
Distributors / San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF)

Commentary | "First Person Plural" (2000)

In the essay “What Must I Be? Asian Americans and the Question of Multiethnic Identity,” Paul Spickard argues that persons of Asian descent should embrace their Asian ethnicity perhaps even more if they are situated in an Anglo-American context. Even though Deann Borshay is not multiethnic, I think that her story of being adopted in a white American context is one that really complicates the notion of reconciling multiple identities. Whether it is possible to feel completely whole in either context (or even between them) is a question that I don’t think Deann has found an answer for in this film.

While she describes her connection to her Korean family and Korean culture as stemming from emotion and memory, she also comes to the realization that because she no longer depends on the Borshays for survival she has difficulty accepting them as her parents. I think in this way she is questioning where her loyalty should lie—with the family who took care of her or the family she feels that she truly belongs to but can’t truly communicate with. It’s difficult to choose sides, and because each adoptee’s experience is so different, there are no easy answers. What this film does bring up, however, are important ideas about the human need to belong to a past that can validate our present existence; and no matter how far removed we may be from it, why some consciousness of our roots and ancestry is vital to our self-worth.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Independent (Dir. Deann Borshay)
Distributors / Independent Television Services (IVTS), PBS P.O.V., National Asian American Telecommunications Association

Commentary | "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" (1987)

It is hard to watch Who Killed Vincent Chin? without feeling hateful, angry, and powerless. As each minute went on I felt myself getting more frustrated, not only because his murder case was treated so unjustly, but also because I felt ashamed that I had never heard of his story before. What probably bothered me even more was that so many people were coherent about what happened to Vincent Chin, including witnesses who heard Ronald Ebens use racial slurs and saw him re-instigate the fight in the parking lot and continue it again at McDonald’s, until he beat Vincent Chin to death there with a baseball bat.

I definitely agree that there was sensationalism on both sides in the media, but regardless of whether there was or wasn’t racial motivation behind this killing, Ebens committed brutal manslaughter and should have been punished accordingly. But to take a step back, one of the reasons this film made me so emotional was because it went further than simply convincing its audience of the injustice in Vincent Chin’s murder and Eben’s trial. That much is pretty clear on its own. By creating a mosaic of tensions and conflict surrounding Chin’s murder, the filmmakers ask the viewer to try and answer the title question beyond its obvious answer. It’s a case where knowing what you don’t know is more important than knowing what you do know. Instead of examining who Ebens is as an individual, the film helps us come to understand what he unconsciously represents—an entire system which gave him the power to commit murder, and ultimately protected him from its consequences.

So it seems it is certainly not enough for the viewer to make the simple connection between white racism, racial conflict, and the murder of Vincent Chin; as historically conscious viewers we have to believe in the value of Vincent Chin’s life and his death. As activist Helen Zia noted, no civil rights trials occur unless there is pressure. In this film, directors Choy and Tajima take the right approach to inspiring activism. They tell their audience something, show them something, and then ask them to do something for themselves—challenging us all to ascribe meaning to Vincent Chin’s story by responding to it in the present in the hopes for a more just future.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Independent (Dir. Renee Tajima-Peña & Christine Choy)
Distributors / Filmmakers Library

Commentary | "Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women's Perspectives" (1993)

I grew up in an area of Los Angeles that has a large Korean population and many of my friends’ families were directly affected by the L.A. riots. Most of the stories I’d heard were about brothers and fathers who had fought to defend their stores and property, and were either put on trial for assault or severely injured in the process. What struck me about the video Sa-I-Gu was that its use of women as narrators worked especially well to counter the many restrictive media images that portrayed Korean-Americans as suspicious and gun-wielding. By opening up a dialogue for Korean women to speak out about the riots, we come to better understand how it affected their families beyond material loss, and what meaning they were able to extract from it in the aftermath.

As these women tell their stories, we as an audience can easily see how their initiation into the American racial hierarchy dismantles their notion of America as mi gook, the beautiful country. The strength of Sa-I-Gu is its ability to critique the very nature of the way America operates, and why an incident like the L.A. riots did not erupt merely by chance. As one woman summed it up, “Something is drastically wrong.” I don’t think the filmmakers intended to implicitly blame white America, but rather attempted to show us why assigning blame to either the Korean or African-American communities is faulty without considering how they became so polarized in the first place. Sa-I-Gu was both educational and a testament to peace and community rebuilding.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Independent (Dir. Christine Choy)
Distributors / Unknown

Friday, November 30, 2007

Commentary | "AKA Don Bonus" (1995)

When we are talking about Asian American representations, especially male ones, Don Bonus is both a positive and complicated figure. He was a representation of Asian American men that I have never encountered before until this film. His face is familiar, but his story is not—he is a Cambodian refugee living and dealing with poverty, robbery and vandalism in a ghetto in San Francisco. While he is trying to find comfort in his family, he has no father, his mother is often gone with her boyfriend, his older brother/father figure has moved away and “assimilated,” and his other brother has recently been sent to jail due in part to the inefficiency of the government and law enforcement to protect kids like him in schools and on the street.

His situation reminded me of some classmates I had in high school, who I’d once heard described as “parachute kids”—those who had been brought or sent to America by their parents but were essentially left without guidance. Needless to say, Don Bonus experiences heavy feelings of loss. I felt that this was the first film we’ve watched so far that had a startling grip on the present instead of trying to revive or understand the past. I was especially moved by his relative Touch and his discussion of “reality”—how the political and military actions of the U.S. brought immigrants here, and the subsequent bitterness of escaping civil war only “to be treated like shit” in America. Even though this argument is an explicit criticism of structural racism, it remains staggering because it isn’t a point of view that gets to be expressed often.

Yet despite the number of heavy issues it deals with as a film, AKA Don Bonus is still so appealing because it doesn’t ask for your sympathy or come across as a “social justice” piece. For the most part, it feels like Don Bonus made the movie more for himself and his family than to persuade anyone else for their sympathy. Don Bonus is not someone we decide we should feel sorry for; instead, he is a real person who experiences the day to day highs and lows of immigrant life in America. In the follow up, he describes his experience making the film as a form of self-counseling, something that created a space for him to talk about his problems and his environment, and to express his emotions. In all honesty, I appreciated that analogy so much because I feel like this blog on Asian American film serves as that kind of space for me.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Independent (Dir. Spencer Nakasako), Center for Asian American Media
Distributors / Center for Asian American Media, National Asian American Telecommunications Association

Commentary | "History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige" (1991)

Filmmaker Rea Tajiri is well-known for her avant-garde style -- so when I watched this film I was prepared me to examine her work within an avant-garde framework, meaning I was prepared to search for abstract meaning in “germinal” images and conceptual film techniques. Though her scrolling script and zooms and pans on still images were certainly powerful, what I found most compelling about History and Memory was simply Tajiri’s narration. There was a haunting quality to her voice, something in her tone that made it clear that she needed to find justice and resolution for this piece of her life that she somehow had always known was missing. Because her family did not have photographs or belongings that could serve as memoirs, she drew from her memory an image of her mother filling a canteen in the desert.

Along with this image, Tajima explores a number of seemingly unrelated fragments and weaves them together, allowing them to draw from and enrich one another until they become a tangible and personal story about the internment camps. She creatively inserted her memories and their spin-offs alongside a history that was told through Hollywood images of Japanese Americans and World War II propaganda. For Tajiri, combining history and memory was an attempt to reconstruct her own version of history—her decided choice to identify a story to tell among a history that was incredibly multi-layered and even confusing.

Despite it being somewhat fictionalized, her film nevertheless comes across and feels truthful because she reconciles that she’s still struggling to fill in the gaps. I felt that the disjointed nature of the film really spoke to how difficult it is to represent the past. And when she said, “I began searching because I felt lost, ungrounded,” her words expressed an inherent sadness that I felt we could all relate to; sadness about a past that is not necessarily ours but that we empathize with because it relates to what we could image our own family’s experience to be, and for more reasons that are hard to articulate.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Unknown
Distributor / Women Make Movies (

Commentary | "American Sons" (1995)

“Racism made me—the way I look, the way I walk, the way I talk.”

The varying experiences of the Asian American men interviewed in American Sons allowed the filmmaker, Steven Okazaki, to show that despite our experiences as Asian American individuals, who we are as Asian Americans is in fact a response to racism. This idea takes inspiration from cultural nationalist thought which privileges race above other issues (such as feminism in Deborah Gee's Slaying the Dragon), and positions that being Asian American means existing in a constant state of fluidity that is in dialogue with and reacting to different cultural contexts.

This film exemplifies how Asian American men’s lives are often grounded in multiple sets of conflicting culture-specific meanings and practices; competing identities which only make it more difficult to construct individual subjectivity. These performances powerfully presented how this struggle can dangerously lead to anger, but the film does a good job to show how anger can be both justified and rectifiable as well. In the end, the filmmaker suggests that the only way to mediate between those competing identities is to pursue an individual path; one that defies others’ expectations not just for the sake of it, but to the end that it satisfies the individual as well.

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Farallon Films
Distributor / Center for Asian American Media

Commentary | "Slaying the Dragon" (1988)

Slaying the Dragon explores the notion that in American society the perception of Asian women has bled onto Asian-American women, allowing mythical stereotypes of Asian ancestry create illusions of who we are culturally. The women interviewed argue that being an Asian woman means that people have already formed an opinion about who you are and should be based on their subconscious expectations of what Asian women ought to be, brought about by the fantasy images put forth by Suzie Wong-like characters in film and media. They introduce films like Flower Drum Song to show Asian American women disparately characterized as either sexual beings or women of integrity, which in turn endorsed a certain kind of misogyny from white men who felt it their duty to either ravage or rescue.

Though I agree with this assertion, I felt that the issue of white male misogyny was only one part of several other difficulties involving both gender and culture. One of the main reasons it is so difficult to construct an Asian American female identity that goes against what is imposed by the mainstream is our own co-optation of those stereotypes when they benefit us. The pressure to “sell out” and play up the role of the “safe” Asian American woman who is coy and pleasing comes not only from the expectations of white men, but men in general and in many cases women as well. I am often reminded (by my mother no less) that an attractive woman is independent and strong, but also docile and complementary to a man in order to assuage his ego. So if Asian women deviate from the characters and cultural norms prescribed to them, they are outcast not only by men but by their culture as well. Doesn't this pressure to be everything to everyone, and have that identity be enough for oneself, seem incredibly isolating?

Company Credits (via
Production Company / Asian Women United
Distributors / Asian Women United, Center for Asian American Media

Commentary | "Chan is Missing" (1982)

Chan is Missing asks a central question concerning Asian American identity—whether there is one, and to what extent assimilation plays a part in constructing it. This film was very accessible to me in its discussion of race because it portrayed the tension between wanting to retain Chinese culture exclusively or assimilate completely.

For instance, while a film like Flower Drum Song (1961) extols becoming fully American, Chan is Missing presents a more complicated picture; one that certainly relates to my own experience about wanting to retain the “good things” from my Chinese culture and using American culture to enhance my individual life. Director Wayne Wang’s solution to this mystery is precisely that everything is so contradictory despite what most of the film’s characters consider as fact. When Jo sets out to better understand who Chan Hung is, he is met with a myriad of perspectives about Chan and about Asian American identity—and throughout the film it seems that Jo is struggling to figure out if and where these perspectives intersect, both for Chan and his own sake.

Personally my opinion was swayed as each new perspective was introduced because I related to them in different ways. Perhaps most salient to me was the generational conflict between the “Chinatown politics” argument (“If they don’t want to recognize us, they will not recognize us”) versus Steve’s insistence that trying to find an Asian American identity was old news. It made me question whether identity was a group or individual finding, and whether it is fair to choose between the two in forming an Asian American identity that is profoundly shaped by both of its components.

Company Credits
Production Company & Distributor / New Yorker Films

Commentary | "Flower Drum Song" (1961)

My initial reaction to Flower Drum Song was one of indifference. Though I had heard of the movie, I was unfamiliar with its subject matter and therefore viewed it as simply another generic old Hollywood musical. Certainly upon closer inspection, Flower Drum Song is not simply a standard American musical set in San Francisco’s Chinatown; the mere fact that the movie concerns generations of Chinese American characters is in itself a stark departure from anything typically Hollywood.

One of the numbers I found most aggravating was “Chop Suey,” because the notion of “chop suey” that the song seems to be trying to suggest would entail an actual blend of cultures. What I saw and heard instead were only stigmatized images of Chinese traditions (American dance styles that ended with “Asian” bows) and a glorification of American culture (“Hula hoops and nuclear war/ Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor…”).

To give the film some historical context, its release date was in step with the Civil Rights Movement -- information which only furthered my critical perception of the film. Considering the contemporaneous threat of “blackness” and the need for different racial groups to align as either closer to “black” or closer to “white” allowed me to understand why Flower Drum Song has been criticized for its implication that the “good Asian” is one who assimilates and maintains the model minority image that continues to persist in the mainstream.

Company Credits
Production Companies / Hunter-Fields, Universal International Pictures
Distributors / Universal Pictures (1961) (USA) (theatrical), National Broadcasting Company (NBC) (1968) (USA) (TV) (original airing)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mission Statement

What is Asian America?

During my first Asian American Studies class, this was the first question my professor posed. And even after weeks of study and a lifetime of firsthand experience, it remains a question that I have too many and too few answers for all at once.

What I can say about being Asian American is that one’s cultural attributes are constantly being redefined. In a sense, being Asian American means to exist in a constant state of being yet at the same time, a constant state of fluidity. For this reason, Asian American produced media and the genre of film in particular possesses so much potential for empowering Asian Americans as a community.

I’m fascinated by how the process of filmmaking is also an ongoing project of unlearning the images and messages Asian Americans are told on a daily basis about our identity. Asian American filmmakers explore the tensions between different aspects of representation, gender, history, and memory.

It is this exploration which allows us to realize that these ideas are in conversation with each other, both competing and complementing, and doing all of these things at once.

This website is my attempt to keep this conversation going. I want this to be a space where anyone concerned with the reconstruction and reifying of fictionalized histories in film can discuss how Asian American media can be subversive in the mainstream. And perhaps, for the prejudices of the past, this can be a space in which to find justice and resolution.

-- JL