Back in 2002, a tiny indie film called “Better Luck Tomorrow” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Financed on maxed-out credit cards, cast with (then) unknown Asian-American actors, and directed by a n00b just a few years removed from film school, “BLT” seemed destined for a life of obscurity.
“Better Luck Tomorrow” was a film about bored, high-achieving Asian-American high school students who get caught up in the thrill of petty crime and end up in a little too deep for their own good.
By all accounts, the initial feedback was positive, but in an industry fueled by hype and buzz, a “moderately positive” audience response is the kiss of death.
It was kind of like “Do The Right Thing,” which director Justin Lin cites as an influence, in that what “BLT” does best is present reality without spoon-feeding the audience a moral conclusion. These kids are just bored suburban kids, making questionable decisions guided by very loose moral compasses.
If these were a bunch of white kids, it would have just been a typical, angsty teen movie. But with Asian-Americans in the main roles, this film was definitely bucking stereotypes.
So what happened at Sundance?
After a few unremarkable screenings, the cast and crew went into their third screening knowing they needed a strong showing. And here’s the part that Sundance dreams are made of:
At the end of the screening, an audience member complimented them for a well-made film but proceeded to berate them for wasting their talents portraying Asian-Americans in such a poor light.
There’s some back and forth between the cast members and the audience, and just as the staff are about to usher people out, an unlikely spokesman stood up from the crowd and went off on a mic-dropping rant. That spokesman? Roger Ebert.
Film critic Roger Ebert stood up and defended the film:
“And 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?’ … Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to ‘represent’ their people.” — Roger Ebert
Ebert called out a huge double standard in the entertainment industry.
When Justin Bieber acts the way Justin Bieber does, he’s not considered a disgrace to white people; he’s just a plain old run-of-the-mill teen popstar burnout. Ebert nails it on the head when he says that we never hold white filmmakers to the same standard, and Asian-American filmmakers ought to be able to make whatever the hell kind of film they want to make. Nobody slams Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or Steven Spielberg or James Cameron for making ALL white people look bad.
It’s also worth noting Ebert pulls off one of the most epic executions of air quotes ever caught on camera. I mean look at that! Any kind of verbal smackdown should work in those air quotes at the end.
Instant argument-winner right here, folks.
All of this matters because Ebert’s rant made “BLT” one of the most talked about films at the festival.
On top of that, “BLT” eventually became the first acquisition by MTV Films. And? That fledgling director Justin Lin went on to direct a bunch of other films you may have heard of — like “The Fast and the Furious” 3 through 6 — and was credited with reviving that franchise.
- Justin Lin has entered the rarefied area of directors who have crossed the billion-dollar box office mark, and he’s NOW DIRECTING THE NEXT STAR TREK. (Sorry, geeked out.)
- John Cho went on to star in “Harold and Kumar,” another stereotype-shattering role, and the unfortunately recently canceled TV series “Selfie.”
- Sung Kang starred in The “Fast and Furious” franchises as Han. (Which, incidentally, was the name of his character in “BLT”; many have speculated perhaps “BLT” Han grew up to become “Fast and Furious” Han.)
- Justin Lin’s assistant Evan Jackson Leong went on to direct the “Linsanity” documentary.
The branches spread far and wide. It’s not a stretch to say this was a watershed moment in Asian-American film history.
Would Justin Lin’s talent have risen to the top anyway? I’d hope so. But because of Roger Ebert’s boldness, Lin opened the door for a new generation of Asian-American talent.
We have a long way to go, but it was a good moment.
And we’re not out of the woods just yet.
More recently, the soon-to-premiere show “Fresh Off the Boat” is already getting blowback from white people on Twitter about how poorly it’s going to represent the Asian community or how racist it’s going to be. For what it’s worth, watching the previews, it actually seems creepily close to my own experiences moving to the United States from Taiwan.
At the end of the day, it’s about allowing our people to be represented in three dimensions rather than as shorthand for stereotypes.
Sure, I knew a lot of high-achieving, smart, well-mannered Asian-Americans. But I also knew plenty of thugs, jocks, beauty queens, math nerds, saints, and sinners. We should have the right to be who we are, and we should have the right to tell our stories, no matter how flawed. It’s precisely in those flaws where life’s most interesting stories are waiting to be told. Everyone else gets to tell theirs; we just want to tell ours.
So thank you Ebert. Two thumbs up from over here.
I first heard of this story through my friend Angry Asian Man. Sundance still by Kevinthompson3221 is in the public domain. Stephen Colbert GIF via Giphy, and John Cho GIF from the NBC “Go On” Tumblr.