Fresh off of winning Best First Feature at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival, gangster drama Bang Bang is set for several screenings in San Jose next week. The feature directorial debut of Byron Q, Bang Bang follows the lives of two young Asian Americans as they get pulled deeper into gang life. Justin (rapper Thai Ngo) runs away from home, crashing with friend and fellow gangster Charlie (David Hyunh in his second Asian American gangster role since 2008's Baby). A rich latchkey kid whose parents are perpetually away on business, Charlie's enamored by the idea of gang life so different from his own. But Justin, jaded with the lifestyle, seeks a way out.
Bang Bang's plot -- centered on an escalating gang war -- is almost an afterthought. The film is presented as a series of loosely connected vignettes that gradually flesh out the characters rather than advance the plot. Scenes are often filled with small talk, asides and jokes among characters that bring an added element of realism. Some moments are intimate almost to the point of voyeurism. Several scenes of Charlie practicing his pistol draw in front of a mirror (reminiscent of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver) feel like walking in on a child playing dress up. At one point, Justin and gang member Hoang (Hoang Bui) fumble with their first forays into music-making -- sometimes it's uncomfortable, sometimes it's endearing. But it always rings of truth.
As the title suggests, Bang Bang is not just a character study. Violence and death are constant threats. Fights break out frequently, are quick and often brutal, without sensationalism or sentimentality. Scenes of domestic violence also remind the viewer that violence goes beyond gangs. For many, it's an everyday reality.
Altogether, these elements of intimacy and grittiness create a heightened sense of realism. And with the no frills dialogue (heavy on the slang) and handheld film shooting, Bang Bang often feels more like a documentary than a narrative.
The actors live up to their roles quite well, owing to the fact that many were amateurs with real life gang backgrounds. For instance, Thai Ngo was also in a gang before finding a way out through music. And David Huynh, himself an outsider playing a gangster, hits the right notes as Charlie, compensating for his background by out-gangstering the gangsters.
The film stumbles by trying to add too many elements, such as a hallucinatory drug trip and a perfunctory romance with flower shop girl Jenn (Jessika Van). They're interesting distractions from the heaviness of the rest of the film, but in the end feel out of place. Meanwhile, the lack of a strong plot, while adding to the sense of realism, makes it difficult to get invested in the story. As such, the film at times seems to meander.
But these few missteps aside, Bang Bang is a serious and unflinching look at a side of Asian America that rarely gets portrayed in film, and even more rarely with this candor.
Bang Bang will be screening at Camera Cinemas in San Jose on the following dates:
Wednesday June 15th, 9:15 pm
Thursday June 16th, 7:00 pm
Sunday June 19th, 7:00 pm
Carlos Cajilig is a member of Hyphen's business team working on events and outreach. Aside from Hyphen, he also works with Asia Society Northern California and does marketing and UX design for a small software company. A consummate dilettante, Carlos dabbles in a bit of everything -- writing, illustration, cooking and guitar -- and isn't terribly good at any of it.