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