From Better Luck Tomorrow to K-Town: Asian Americans and Los Angeles in 21st Century Media
"The problem of this era is that we tend to see people in boxes. You're lesbian, and I am white and heterosexual and he's black," Asian American film director Quentin Lee told journalists in 1998. "All these identities have become essential and stifling ... With [Shopping for Fangs] we wanted to liberate these identities and ideas and put them back in play."
Co-directed by Quentin Lee and Justin Lin, the 1998 feature film "Shopping for Fangs," which turns fifteen this year, attempted to deconstruct the rigid boundaries of Model Minority tropes that have circumscribed Asian American life and representations in popular film and media. Addressing issues affecting "GenerAsian X" -- homosexuality, identity, and consumerism -- Lee and Lin explored the parallel lives of Phil (Radamar Agana Jao), Katherine (Jeanne Chin), and Trinh (also played by Chin), three Angeleno Asian Americans of varying ethnicities, as they intersect over the course of 90-plus minutes.
Taking place in the surburban/urban space of San Gabriel Valley, a region distinguished by its mix of Asian and California culture, Lee argued that no other space better demonstrates the late 1990s metaphor for "the subjectivity of Asian Americans a post-modern vision, comfortably juxtaposing bits of 'Asian' and 'Western' culture in a montage." Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas agreed, noting in his review of the film that San Gabriel Valley symbolized modern hybridity, replete with "cultural load star[s]" like the film's Go Go Café -- where one can get a club sandwich or dim sum, all to sounds of Cantonese torch singing in the background.1
As pointed out by Sarah Projansky and Kent A. Ono, the film represented one piece of a larger movement in Asian American cinema, which focused less on the immigrant experience and more on the post-modern reality of being Asian in America.2 However, while "Fangs" might have sparked academic discussions and cult followings, it failed to break into the mainstream, remaining a provocative but, for the most part, little seen film.
Five years later, Lin returned to the subject of Southern California Asian American identity, this time working alone, and placed his movie within the parameters of a crime inflected coming-of-age story. "Better Luck Tomorrow" jettisoned Generation X, and issues like homosexuality, for those of adolescent masculinity in the age of the Millennials. Protagonist Ben Manibag (Parry Shen) struggles to fulfill model minority stereotypes, while leading a double life of criminality that paradoxically helps him catch the eye of his crush, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). With the film's tenth anniversary and commencement of the 29th annual Asian Pacific American Film Festival, the moment seems appropriate to consider the place of Southern California Asian Americans in film and television.
Recent immigration and demographic trends point to a growing Asian American population, and one with deeper and longer ties to American culture. The 2012 presidential election and new reports regarding immigration flows highlighted the increasing cultural and political influence of Asian Americans. As has been noted by KCET and elsewhere, California in particular has absorbed much of this influx. Forty percent of the nation's Vietnamese American population resides in Orange County, Japanese Americans have long inhabited Los Angeles, and Korean Americans' roots in the city, particularly today's K-Pop driven Koreatown clubs and tragedy of the 1992 riots, have seared their membership into municipal citizenship.
If, in 1998, Quentin Lee argued that young Asian Americans connected to mainstream American culture more broadly then ever before, one imagines that twenty-something Asian Americans today can make similar, but bolder claims. Movies like "Better Luck Tomorrow," and the web reality series "K-Town," demonstrate this point, but also point to the limits of these efforts in regard to truly representing Asian American culture.
First, it's agreed that the term "Asian American" probably obscures as much as it reveals. If you are in England and you mention your fellow British citizens of Asian heritage, you're talking about Pakistanis and Indians. But in the U.S. a similar reference usually relates to Americans whose families originated in Southeast and East Asia. Moreover, considering the linguistic and ethnic differences encompassed by the term, not to mention historical grievances between ethnic groups, clearly Asian American as signifier might be considered dubious. As numerous others have illustrated, the term functions more as means to draw together a diverse set of voices under one rubric, thereby making political action more feasible.
Umbrella terms like "Asian American cinema" function similarly, gathering a wide collection of perspectives in one place. Even if one wanted more ethnic driven identities, like Korean or Japanese American, these terms too would fail to truly define cultural traits. To paraphrase Peter Feng, do Korean Americans arriving since the 1970s occupy the same place in American culture akin to their ethnic counterparts who came before them to labor in the sugar cane fields of the early twentieth century?3
Defining the term matters. In a 1995 Time article, "Pacific Overtures," writer Richard Corliss lumped "Farewell My Concubine," Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth," Madonna's video for "Rain" and Janet Jackson's for "If," along with Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet" as examples of "Asian Chic." Then festival programmer Abe Ferrer noted Mr. Corliss had missed the boat. "That's not a valid expression of our media making heritage or society."4 The term's importance is not just about identity; Mr. Ferrer and the Asian Pacific American Film Festival demonstrate the value in employing the label for filmmakers and movie goers themselves.
From VC to BLT
Indeed, Los Angeles played a key role in establishing a valuable infrastructure for Asian American auteurs.5 In the 1970s, a group of Asian Americans in the L.A. region established Visual Communications (VC). Inspired in part by the "Third Cinema" and political movements of the 1960s, VC emphasized the establishment of a community-based media: "non hierarchical, democratic, collaborative relations and participatory filmmaking of productions that worked intimately and sympathetically with the communities being documented." University California Irvine Professor Glen Mimura credits VC with contributing to the creation of "grassroots media centers, production skills workshops and other resources, thereby creating the material growth of Asian American independent media."6
The VC-backed 1979 movie "Hito Hata: Raise the Banner," a full-length feature film focused on the lives of elderly Japanese American bachelors being evicted from a downtown Los Angeles public housing project, best represents this impulse. Though it cost over $100,000 and burdened VC with debt for years, it also made important inroads in local Asian American communities as it marked the first time a movie production secured the active cooperation of Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.
For Mimura, the movie does not fully succeed. Too dependent on melodrama and lacking the radical political leanings of Third Cinema, "Hito Hata," like the many VC-produced documentaries, struggled to push out far enough. "VC appears to have rested its politics on the transformative potential of such attention to local detail without equally illuminating the community's historical and structural relations to the larger social formation." With all this said, Mimura concedes that no other organization matches in "scale and degree", VC's activist efforts.7
Today, it is easy to forget the controversy surrounding the release of "Better Luck Tomorrow." At a contentious Sundance showing in 2003, one audience member took Justin Lin to task for making an amoral movie that depicted Asian Americans in a negative light. It took the late great Roger Ebert to intervene:
What I find very condescending and disturbing about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?!' ... Yes, film has the right to be about these people and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to represent their people.
After Ebert's outburst, which literally took place with him screaming, the floodgates opened. "After he finished speaking, [Miramax heavyweight] Harvey Weinstein wanted us, and then Fox, and MTV Films," Parry Shen told journalists at the time. John Cho agreed, adding that Asian American film needed more movies like "BLT." "It's threatening to some people because they want a particular image," Cho pointed out. "And we've gone away from stereotypes in order to kind of negate these bad stereotypes. You see on TV, it's all positive model minority cut-out [type characters] -- it's just a function in a scene. What this movie does is give you protagonists that are very deeply flawed. And I think in order for Asian-American cinema to progress, we need to have characters who are deeply flawed."
Undoubtedly, the four main characters, Ben (the level-headed one trying to balance two worlds), Virgil (the irrational, sensitive, crazy one), Daric (the social climber, club joiner, schemer, schmoozer type), and Han (the brawny, sexually virulent, muscle) have flaws. What starts with selling answers to school tests -- capitalizing on stereotypes of Asian American industriousness and intelligence -- advances to petty crime, when they use white Americans' inability to distinguish between Asian faces to rip off a local Best Buy type retailer, and eventually graduates to murder in a mean spirited prank gone horribly wrong. Complete with booze and drug-fueled training for an upcoming academic bowl in Las Vegas -- one must suspend disbelief with any film -- "BLT" makes a more universal statement about adolescence while pushing back against typical Asian American stereotypes, notably in regard to masculinity and Asian American male sexuality. Lin's characters use drugs, chase girls, and commit crimes, all while putting forth the Model Minority archetype. Noted Shen at the time, "People came up to me and said, 'After the first five minutes, I totally forgot you guys were Asian,' ... it has nothing to do with being Asian, it's universal stuff about ... kids. Not necessarily that they're bad or evil, [just] that they sometimes make wrong decisions."
The debate around "BLT" and its subject matter, reveal a primary tension running through Asian American film: balancing the specificity of the Asian American experience, while also appealing more broadly. At what point does one sacrifice one for the other? In a later essay, the aforementioned Peter Fang noted that often Asian and Asian American filmmakers achieved wider appreciation when submerging identity for movies "about white Americans (Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" ) or have added Asian 'flavor' to Hollywood films ([John] Woo's "Face/Off" )."8 "BLT" achieves this balance in many respects, telling the age old story of foolish adolescent boys, who capitalize on their Asian American identity in ways not seen as typical of their ethnic group.
More recently, Los Angeles and Southern California served as ground zero for the controversy regarding media portrayals of Asian American culture with the web series "K-Town." Widely billed as the "Asian Jersey Shore," the heavily-scripted reality show takes place exclusively in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Consisting of the usual archetypes, but this time with Asian faces, the protagonists include Jasmine Chang ("the Jokester"), Scarlet Chan ("the Troublemaker"), Joe Lee ("the Bad Ass"), Jowe Chow ("the Heartbreaker"), Violet Kim ("the Drama Queen"), Steve Kim ("the Party Animal"), Cammy Chung ("the Sweetheart") and Young Lee ("the Entertainer").
In many ways, "K-Town" boils down its attraction to seeing Asian Americans behave in ways that contradict stereotypical expectations, but does so in the context of American reality television, a genre largely created and defined by the U.S. Binge drinking comes wrapped in Korean culture, as one episode from Season One divides itself according to the four rounds of partying that the show's characters claim are typical of Korean American culture. Doing Seoul Train shots (a mixture of beer and soju) at the club might remind paler Americans of their own ethnic equivalents, like the politically incorrect Irish Car Bombs (a shot of Bailey's dropped into a half pint of Guiness).
For all its ridiculousness, the show exudes a certain gutter charm. "I can't help but feel like a Koreatown Kurtz; journeying into the heart of reality TV darkness," wrote Grantland's Emily Yoshida last July. After spending a drunken day on the set, Yoshida's Joan Didion-like account pointed to "K-Town's" wider appeal. "The narcotic lure of EDM and camera-mounted lights is starting to work its way under my skin, and I am genuinely afraid of what might happen if I were to stay another hour." Indeed, the popularity of K-Pop and EDM as cultural flashpoints help make the series seem both exotic and domestic. Koreatown itself is the real star, as Chapman Plaza, S-Bar, Vibe nightclub, Assi Market, and other points of interest populate the show's settings. Asian American celebrities like Shin B, porn star Evelyn Lin, and DJ Teddy Ruxpin also make cameos.
Obviously, plenty of negatives exist. The "K-Town" crew employs intraethnic slurs -- often making fun of FOBs (newly arrived Asian immigrants, a.k.a. "fresh off the boat") -- or what Scarlett incorrectly calls "Konguru" -- and a whiff of homophobia pervades proceedings. Almost as if the characters purposely want to bury any idea of Asian American passivity, the word "bitch" is thrown around like a 1995 hip-hop album. When Scarlett relates the attempt by an unlucky suitor to court her in one Koreatown club, she puts it simply: "Bitch, please you do not deserve to talk to me." Tensions within the Asian American umbrella come to head on several occasions, as Scarlett's Chinese heritage serves as means of insult in more heated moments, such as when Jowe tells her to "Go to Chinatown" during one argument.
To put it simply, once the novelty of seeing Asian Americans pound drinks, engage in sexual hi-jinx, and engage in stupid, inebriated fights -- verbal and physical -- wears off, as Gertrude Stein once said, "there is no there there."
Whether or not all this represents progress remains a very debatable point. Some could argue "K-Town" is liberating, much like some feminists argue stripping to be an act of female empowerment. Why should irresponsible degenerate behavior be the purview of only certain Americans? Scarlett, Steve, and the others own their identities rather than being dictated to them, right? Yet, watching "K-Town" you can almost hear a generation of older Asian Americans throwing up in their mouths. Generational divides exist in every culture; "K-Town" simply exploits them by presenting the antics of its stars as Asian but within a very American formula.
One might even ask, are "K-Town" stars really reflecting Asian American culture, or mirroring the same marketing devices inspired by "Jersey Shore" and "The Real World?" Take the Persian American-themed "Shahs of Sunset." Guess what? The characters on Shahs do pretty much the same things as Jowe and the others on "K-Town," but play up their Persian American upbringing.
Today, Justin Lin might be better known for his work on the "Fast and Furious" series, one that movie critic Wesley Morris extolled for its uniqueness. "Even the ones that aren't that good are ... doing something that movies don't do," he told Bill Simmons recently. "There's only one white guy, there's a Hispanic guy, and a lot of multiracial people." Lin may not be articulating any sense of Asian American identity in these movies, but undoubtedly his earlier work contributed to these kind of depictions, where the diversity of the cast no longer seem unusual.
Whether it's the more smaller, more personal and often more political nature of the 29th annual Asian Pacific Film Festival, or the commercial efforts of "BLT" and "K-Town," Los Angeles and its entertainment industry has played and continues to play a central role in the crafting of the Asian American identity; it will be interesting to see what the new century brings us.
1 Sarah Projansky and Kent A. Ono, "Making Films Asian American: Shopping for Fangs and the Discursive Auteur", in Authorship and Film, Eds. David A. Gerstner and Janet Staiger, New York: Routledge Chapman and Hall, 2003), pg 271.
2 Ibid, pg. 264.
3 Peter Feng, "In Search of Asian American Cinema (Race in Contemporary American Cinema, part 3)," Cineast 21, 1995
6 Glen M. Mimura, Ghost Life of the Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pg 38.
7 Ibid, 40-41.
8 Sarah Projansky and Kent A. Ono, "Making Films Asian American: Shopping for Fangs and the Discursive Auteur", pg. 265