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How Asian Americans Portray Ourselves

Do Asian American artists, entertainers, and filmmakers have an obligation to portray the Asian American community in a positive light? The eargerly anticipated film Better Luck Tomorrow is the first all Asian-American movie to be widely distributed by a major studio in a long time. At the same time, it is surrounded in controversy over its portrayal of many segments of Asian American culture. The following article is written by Brian Hu and reprinted from the Daily Californian, an independent student newspaper at U.C. Berkeley, and examines the tough choices Asian American artists sometimes have to make.

Brutal Betrayal or Accurate Portrayal?

Director Justin Lin is feeling a little pressured these days. The entire future of Asian American independent filmmaking lies on the success of his second feature "Better Luck Tomorrow," which opens next week in select cities.

Cast of 'Better Luck Tomorrow' © Paramount Pictures

"I have Asian American friends who are filmmakers and they've told me that their futures depend on how well 'Better Luck Tomorrow' does. That's why it's so important that people come out and support the film." As the first such film distributed by a major big-name distributor (Paramount and MTV Films in this case), the controversial new film has to set a healthy precedent if other big studios are willing to invest in Asian American films in the future, Lin says.

"I deal with studios everyday now, and I've realized it's very simple for them: If people show up to see 'Better Luck Tomorrow,' more films like 'Better Luck Tomorrow' will be in theaters. More films about Asian Americans, be it from any perspective, will be in theaters." This issue of perspective is what has the film swarmed with controversy, and possibly success too. Its third sold-out screening at last year's Sundance Film Festival is now a staple of Asian American folklore, with the movie about four Asian, Ivy-league bound, honor-roll kids and their adventures in cheating, robbery, drugs, and murder inciting a furious debate after the film.

"This [white] guy stood up and starting screaming, 'How could you do this to the Asian American community? How could you portray these characters so badly, because it's such a great community?"' Lin recalls. "It started off this frenzy where people stood up saying 'What are you talking about?' People were defending and jumping in, and then at the end Roger Ebert stood up and said he found it appalling that some guy would make that statement, because the responsibility of filmmakers is to make the best film possible, and that's his responsibility to his community if any."

Ebert is quoted in the film's press notes as adding, "What I find offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?' This film has the right to be about these people, and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever they want to be. They do not have to 'represent' their people."

Justin Lin, Director of 'Better Luck Tomorrow' © Daily Californian

Lin hopes that by fleshing three-dimensional Asian characters, albeit violent ones, he can break a mold and explore actual issues. "When I was growing up [in the 80s] we talked about searching for identity. We didn't know where we were so we were trying to find ourselves. But I work with kids today and it's like they're not searching anymore, they're shopping. They're like, 'Okay, I want to be this, I want to be that.' I work with these middle-upper class kids, and they're shopping. They've decided to adopt this 'gangsta' mentality. It doesn't make sense. There's a little bit of danger in that. They're not really developing any identity."

Surrounded by this controversy, "Better Luck Tomorrow" was picked up by MTV Films, which won the bidding war for just under a million dollars. This notoriety and the fact that a mainstream studio would soon be releasing it allowed the film to travel the festival circuit from San Francisco to Vancouver. Lin, who grew up in Orange County and then attended UCLA's prestigious film school says he never imagined the film's success. "[My first film] 'Shopping for Fangs' was such a learning experience, but financially was such a disaster. You're trying to make more films, you're trying to stay true to your vision, and it's such an expensive medium, you're just lucky to be making a film.

"So I got to the point where I thought okay, I have one shot left and I really wanted to make a film that was important to me. I thought, 'If I could only make one film, what would that be? Would it be a talking kangaroo movie?' I truly thought this was it because I took out ten credit cards and my life savings, and I was in six-figure debt." Lin hopes his investment pays off not only financially, but with Hollywood's attention to Asian American directors and actors. "As much as [studios] are aware of [Asian Americans], they're not going to understand our perspective. I don't expect them to say, 'Hey guys let's try to explore Asian Americans this year.' I know that's up to us. If we want to see that, we have to do that ourselves."

Author Citation

Copyright © 2003 by Brian Hu/Daily Californian. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Hu, Brian. 2003. "How Asian Americans Portray Ourselves." Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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