Emails about it have been popping up in my inbox more often than Viagra ads. Asian American magazines have been treating it like long-awaited salvation. It’s the coolest thing since tapioca pearl milk tea (and better for us too), hotter than a lowered Honda.

All of this hype presages the release of a movie called Better Luck Tomorrow, scheduled to hit theaters in major cities April 11. BLT for short, it promises to present Asian Americans the way we’ve yearned to be portrayed for all our sheltered lives: as ass-kicking hoodlums who instill fear into the hearts of white people.

The movie centers on a group of Asian American high school students, academic overachievers who resent the boredom of their tract-home suburb in Los Angeles. For excitement and rebellion, they turn to a life of gun-wielding violence, Las Vegas hookers, and on-campus larceny. The film follows the teens from party to party, through romantic liaisons, as they win one academic decathlon championship after another. The group’s violent escapades escalate until the teens finally find themselves in over their heads.

Since its premiere on the festival circuit last year, BLT has wowed audiences from Asian American festivals all the way to Sundance, winning praise and generating controversy along the way. One such episode has virtually become the film’s calling card. During the question and answer period following the third Sundance screening, a white man with a misguided sense of political correctness expressed outrage at the amoral portrayal of the Asian American people. This prompted film critic Roger Ebert to stand on his seat and shout, “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?'” A few days later, MTV Films signed BLT, making it the first film with an Asian American cast and director to be picked up for distribution at Sundance by a major studio. For many Asian Americans, BLT marks the first time they will see themselves on the big screen in an honest light or in major movie multiplexes alongside Hollywood blockbusters. If successful, the film could open the door to more realistic portrayals of Asian Americans all over the mainstream media.

Since the birth of cinema, Asian Americans–actors and audiences alike–have sought roles and characters that stretched beyond the stereotypical: the dragon lady seductress performing ancient sexual secrets with her pinky, the oriental Buddha-shaped man dispensing fortune cookie advice, the flying martial-arts hero who knocks out twenty ninjas in a single roundhouse kick. But even in 2003, roles beyond these old stereotypes hardly exist.

Says actor Russell Wong, promoting his new TV show Black Sash (he’s a martial arts guru) on the WB website: “I’ve always been pretty dedicated to practicing martial arts. Growing up, Bruce Lee was a big source of inspiration for me. As an Asian actor you either do martial arts or you just won’t get cast in anything.” BLT writer-director Justin Lin realized the only way to realize his dream of an Asian American movie with authentic characters was to make it himself. It gave him the freedom to create Asian American characters in his vision, not having to kowtow to studio heads, who most likely would have shied away from a movie with an all-Asian American cast. In BLT, humor and anger and other contradictory emotions collide, just as they do in life (and good movies). Take this scene between  two of the main characters, students Ben Manibag and Virgil Hu, competing in their club’s candy bar drive:

In a high school hallway, a chart on the wall reads: CANDY BAR DRIVE WINNERS: CINDY LAWTON – 58 BARS, JOSH DIAMOND – 87 BARS, BEN MANIBAG – 547 BARS, AND THE WINNER OF THE PORTABLE CD PLAYER: VIRGIL HU – 575 BARS.

Virgil, proudly holding the CD player over his head, screams in joy.

In the locker area, Virgil opens his locker full of candy bars. Candy bars flood out of Virgil’s locker. Ben cracks up.

Virgil closes his locker and they walk off.

BEN
Can I borrow your CD player?

VIRGIL
Fuck off.

Ben snatches it from Virgil and runs off. Virgil chases him.

Ben makes a turn and the CD player flies out of his hand and smashes on the ground.

Virgil takes a look at the CD player.

BEN
Sorry, Virg.

VIRGIL
Fuckin’ dick.

BEN
Stop crying. It’s a piece of shit CD player anyway.

VIRGIL
Fuck you.

Ben pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket and tosses it at Virgil.BEN
Now you can buy a better one.

Going beyond the stereotype

Sure, the portrayals of Asian Americans in BLT can be grim and violent. But what the guy at Sundance failed to understand (besides that life actually is often grim and violent) is that Asian Americans have been longing for complex portrayals like the ones in BLT, not necessarily “positive” ones. Portraying Asian Americans as the goody-two-shoes “model minority” denies us our humanity. Furthermore, this same mentality leads to the flip side–inexplicably evil and/or degrading Asian characters. In its shameful history, Hollywood has long forbidden Asian Americans to be anything but two-dimensional props.

One of the first Asian American stars was Los Angeles-born Anna May Wong. Despite her great talent, she subsisted on supporting roles, like the Mongolian slave in The Thief of Bagdad, or else was typecast as the exotic foreigner. Fed up with the constraints of Hollywood, Wong left for Europe in 1928 to pursue more meaningful roles. “I was tired of the parts I had to play,” she said at the time. “Why is it that on the screen the Chinese are nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain–murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that.”

Still, Wong kept track of American roles throughout the 1930s. When movie adaptation plans were made for The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s novel about a farmer in rural China, Wong hoped to land the leading role of the farmer’s wife. Instead, all of the lead roles went to white actors who played the parts of Asians in yellowface. Luise Rainer, who got the part of the farmer’s wife, O-Lan, won an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Other highlights of Asian American cinema:

1961–Mickey Rooney, complete with prosthetic eyepieces and big buckteeth, plays a huffy Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This obscenely racist yellowface bit of “acting,” which continues to this day on shows like MadTV stings for Asians like Amos and Andy does for blacks.

1984–American teen comedy Sixteen Candles features horny foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong. Sole purpose in film: to be the butt of White Man’s jokes. He might as well have been named Long Jap Chink.

1990s–Roles improve, but some Asian American filmgoers have nagging feeling that characters must go extra mile to prove “I am an American!” by pitting themselves against their crazy old-world parents and their antiquated customs (Joy Luck Club). Or, in other cases, the Asian American woman must be saved from the clutches of evil Asian men by a sanctimonious white man (Joy Luck Club.)

2000–Movies from Asia make inroads into American theaters. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is even nominated for Best Picture. These are cool movies in their own right, but should not be confused with Asian American movies that deal with American issues. Incidentally, Crouching Tiger star Zhang Ziyi’s next role is a mail-order bride summoned by a trailer park loser played by Adam Sandler.

Now we as Asian Americans might pretend these movies didn’t affect us growing up in the United States. We might like to pretend movies and television are just fanciful fictions with no bearing on how we conduct our lives, how we see ourselves, or how non-Asians see us. On the contrary–we Americans take most of our cultural cues from the world of entertainment. And, for Asian Americans, decades of Asian caricatures and stereotypes have taken their toll.

Professor Darrell Hamamoto at the University of California–Davis conducted an experiment in his Asian American studies class. Essentially, he asked his students, “When you think of a sexual fantasy, what is the race of the person you fantasize about?” Invariably, the fantasy was not Asian, most certainly not an Asian American male. Years of demeaning roles had invaded our subconscious. Although the question was sexual in nature, the self-hatred could have applied to myriad human desires.

Which brings us to 2003 and Better Luck Tomorrow. In a widely circulated Internet letter, BLT actor Parry Shen lamented the cycle of Asian American typecasting in the twentieth century. “The world is exposed to the cliche9d images of Asians that currently occupy the screen, these images subconsciously encapsulate for them what Asian people are. The martial-artists practitioners. The nerdy students. The exotic sexual prizes. The guy that delivers the food to your door. And it becomes a self-fueling process because audiences continue to pay admission to see them. Unfortunately, these are the only roles that are available for Asian actors to portray.”

Eighty years after Anna May Wong first appeared on screen, things could be changing. Acting and directing opportunities could increase for Asian Americans after BLT, provided it does well at the box office. If it does, it will be due in no small part to the grassroots advertising, organizing, and excitement created by Asian Americans. It’s not hard to see why strong support has been building for BLT. For in this movie, a greater truth will have been revealed: We, as Asian Americans, are all too ready to see ourselves on the big screen, to revel in fictional characters in all their depravity, humor, sexuality, anger, and faults. In other words, as full human beings.”

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