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

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