[MOVIES] Asian-Americans still knocking on Hollywood's door
- Asian-Americans still knocking on Hollywood's door
Published: Tuesday, June 10, 2003
``Better Luck Tomorrow'' was hailed as the ``great yellow hope'' when
it opened in April.
``It was a real watershed for Asian-American cinema,'' says Gene
Cajayon, an independent Asian-American filmmaker.
As one of the first Asian-American films to reach mainstream
audiences, the thriller shattered stereotypes, portraying honor
students dabbling in crime as an extracurricular activity. But
critics say it did not change Hollywood.
``It has created an awareness and is one step closer to leveling the
playing field,'' says ``Better Luck Tomorrow'' actor Roger Fan. ``But
it's still off balance by a long shot.''
Movie critic Roger Ebert defended the film against criticism at the
Sundance Film Festival, saying that Asian-Americans can portray
whomever they choose. ``Life is still a little ghetto,'' Fan says. He
moved from playing the leading jock in ``Better Luck Tomorrow'' to a
bit part in Matt Damon's comedy ``Stuck On You,'' due out in December.
His co-star Jason Tobin could not find work after ``Better Luck
Tomorrow,'' and is stuck in Buenos Aires, Argentina, waiting for the
renewal of his work visa to return to the United States.
``I wouldn't say anything changed careerwise, just because none of
the actors have gotten any work as a direct result of `Better Luck
Tomorrow,' '' says Parry Shen, the movie's lead actor. The only job
he was offered after the movie was a stereotypical Asian cabdriver.
He turned down the part.
Actress Karin Anna Cheung still plugs away at her day job at a family
friend's dental office. Recently, a casting director called to say
they couldn't hire her, she says, because they already had an Asian
in the cast.
While there are more Asian-American actors than ever before, Eddie
Wong, executive director of the National Asian American
Telecommunications Association (NAATA), says, ``You can have a
billion Asian-American actors and still have a problem of how they
get into films.''
Plus, no film can change the industry by itself, says Harry Lin, a
veteran of Bay Area broadcasting who now is executive vice president
of ABC's Web site, abc.com.
``The movie industry is very conservative,'' Lin says. ``It's not
proactive to change or trying to make waves. That's why independent
film and cinema is so important: It's where change and risk occurs.''
For Asian-Americans, the move toward entertainment careers has been a
recent one, stretching the past 40 years, starting with such
stereotypical films as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ``Flower
``The power structure discriminates against us, and culturally we've
been so narrow-minded, focusing on being a lawyer, doctor or working
for the government,'' says Lin, a second-generation Chinese-American
whose parents told him to find a ``real career'' when he started in
Paralleling other minorities who have been typecast as gangsters, bad
guys and servants, Asians have been relegated to portraying nerds,
martial arts experts and waiters, taking parts such as the blabbering
Long Duk Dong in ``Sixteen Candles'' and the exotic Lady Deathstrike
But actors chose to break out of the mold with ``Better Luck
Tomorrow'' and continue to do so.
``Better Luck Tomorrow'' ``has inspired others to do the same,'' says
Shen, a drama teacher at a private high school in Southern
California. He says he avoided studying martial arts so he would
never be relegated to those roles.
Asian-Americans rallied behind ``Better Luck Tomorrow'' and got the
word out about the movie, in an effort to show Hollywood that their
dollars counted, says Christine Padilla, executive director of
Contemporary Asian Theater Scene in San Jose. As a result, 60 percent
of the audiences for ``Better Luck Tomorrow'' were Asian-American,
says the film's director, Justin Lin, who is not related to Harry Lin.
``It's about time. Films portraying teenagers aren't very accurate
most of the time, at least not to me or my friends. How many people
do you know who pleasure themselves by sticking pie down there?''
says Angela Dang, a student at Cupertino's Homestead High School,
referring to ``American Pie.'' ``The search to find a great movie I
could relate to ended when I saw `Better Luck Tomorrow.' ''
A modest success
Ticket sales will reach $4 million for ``Better Luck Tomorrow,''
which cost $250,000 to produce, says Justin Lin. It's modest when
compared to a studio blockbuster such as ``The Matrix Reloaded,''
which will earn around $200 million, or to an indie smash such as
``Blair Witch Project,'' which took in $140 million at the box office
and cost less that $400,000 to produce.
``Even as a proud Asian-American media executive, I say it's still a
bad business decision to make a television show or movie to appeal to
Asian-Americans only,'' Harry Lin says. ``The key is to appeal to
Asian-Americans and others.''
NAATA director Wong says Hollywood will only change if it believes
this is an audience worth nurturing. One-third of the nation's Asian-
Americans live in California. Their presence isn't as widely felt
nationwide; Asian-Americans are still only 4.2 percent of the
country's total population, according to the 2000 census.
Nevertheless, outside Hollywood, ``Better Luck Tomorrow'' did change
the way Asian-Americans saw themselves on film and sparked a
discussion and a critical look at what it means to be Asian-American.
``It's contemporary,'' says Jocelyn Kwan, a 16-year-old from
Fremont's Mission San Jose High School, which many students say is
similar to the competitive high school portrayed in the movie. ``This
is modern and speaks to the second generation of Asian-Americans.''
``This film cannot represent everybody,'' says director Justin Lin.
``Give me some time. They'll be growing pains and time will only tell
where we'll go next.''
He says he hopes that when he's talking about his next film in a
couple of years, he'll be talking about filmmaking and not about
being Asian-American anymore.
Contact Marian Liu at mliu@... or (408) 920-2740. Fax