FIVE YEARS AGO, Justin Lin was just another up-and-coming director at the Sundance Film Festival hoping to catch a big break.
With an unknown indie coming-of-age flick called Better Luck Tomorrow and only 10 maxed-out credit cards to show for it, he didn't know how to respond when people asked, "What do you do?" He clearly wasn't making a living as a filmmaker.
This year, back in the snow-blown Park City, UT, streets for Sundance, he had a little more ease in his step.
After the success of Better Luck Tomorrow (endearingly referred to as BLT by the cast and crew) and directing two major studio films-Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift-he's returned to those indie roots with a biting comedy, Finishing the Game.
The film is a return to directing an Asian American cast (as in BLT), but also a leap into comedy. As far as Lin is concerned, humor is the next frontier for Asian American film.
"I think it's time for us to have a little sense of humor, be able to laugh at ourselves," he says as he prepared to brave the snow for dinner with the cast and crew of the film. "Our community is not perfect. We have great people. We also have idiots, issues and lots of problems."
This is not to say that Finishing the Game is a sober social critique. Set in the big-hair 1970s, the film chronicles the attempts to cast someone to replace Bruce Lee, who died before completing Game of Death. Some of the actors vying for the role are a Korean American from Alabama (Sung Kang), a half-Chinese ladies' man who's into beat poetry (McCaleb Burnett), a Chinese American vacuum cleaner salesman (Dustin Nguyen) and an Indian American doctor and Stuntman (Mousa Kraish).
But this comedic lineup of diverse Asian Americans-no William Hungs in a Justin Lin film, thank you-is part of Lin's larger outlook on making films about Asian Americans. It's also a response to BLT critics who called those images of Asian Americans "too negative" way back at the first screening at Sundance.
To understand Lin's discomfort with the whole topic, realize that BLT made him the most-watched young Asian American filmmaker. This is especially true among the large young, media-savvy Asian American population, for whom media images seem to mean everything as far as Asian American social consciousness.
And despite a rapidly growing and capable crop of Asian American filmmakers, Lin has thus far had the most box-office success. With that popularity has come pressure to "represent."
"I understand it's there," he says. "It's a bit undue, I think. I didn't make BLT because I wanted to please anyone. It was just something I wanted to do. Remember, back then, I thought that literally could be my last movie."
Five years after that initial argument over BLT-in which Roger Ebert famously jumped up to defend the film-Lin still bristles at the argument for "positive" Asian American images to counter predominant stereotypes.
"It's always about positive and negative. I feel like I'm back in high school. What's really positive is being empowered. For me or any other filmmaker to do whatever we want-that's positive to me, but somehow it gets contrived into, This character has to be a choirboy.'"
BREAKING OUT OR SELLING OUT
Comedy might be the most challenging way to bring realistic three-dimensional characters to the big screen, but for a growing group of Asian American directors, making films with Asian American leading roles is no longer a problem. In recent years, Greg Pak's Robot Stones (2003), Alice Wu's Saving Face (2004), Grace Lee's The Grace Lee Project (2005), Tanuj Chopra's Punching at the Sun (2006) and Eric Byler's Americanese (2006) have raised critics' eyebrows and drawn large crowds, mostly on the festival circuit and at grassroots, city-by-city rollouts. Their scripts are complex and the stories dynamic-and they're not necessarily about Asian Americans so much as incorporating Asian Americans into critical and three-dimensional film roles.
It speaks to how far Asian American film has come in recent years. This year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival-the biggest and baddest of its kind-had 12 narrative features in competition.
But without studio distribution, few of these films will score with audiences outside of the Asian American community.
"I think that it all comes down to dollars," says director Michael Kang, director of The Motel, which won a Humanitas Prize at Sundance when it opened there in 2005. The film was critically acclaimed but not a commercial hit. "When shopping the script around, people recognized a good script and story, but when it goes into the accountants' hands it's 'not castable.' "
Part of the problem was that the lead role was written for a young, overweight Chinese boy. "It's hard for people to get behind a fat Chinese kid," Kang says, only half-joking. "That was the whole point: If you can love this kid, you can love any Asian American on screen."
The reality is that many Hollywood execs still believe Asian American-led films can't make money. One Hollywood exec told Kang that if he changed the ethnicity of the main supporting role (eventually played by Sung Kang), he could get big studio money. "It was said if you change Sung Kang to a white guy you'd get this made for $10 million tomorrow," he recalls.
While Asian Americans may have seen films like The Motel on campus, at festivals or on DVD, these films haven't gotten the play that would signal a larger impact on American culture. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood executives will green light a film with an Asian American lead. Perceptions aren't easy to change in Hollywood, where guaranteed box office money, regardless of how interesting a movie may seem, is the gold standard.
That's one of the reasons Lin knew that he had to do Finishing the Game independently, even with his newfound Hollywood credibility, which might have garnered him studio financing.
"If you want to explore stuff more on the margins-with Finishing the Game it's a huge Asian American cast-right away you kind of get taken off the marketplace or have to do it with a studio, and there's no way I'd want to do that," Lin says, referring to his experience where "studios hire you and then turn around and fight you over the film." Finishing the Game is itself a critique of the industry, with its ridiculous premise that a different actor could play Bruce Lee through creative camera angles on the stand-in's face.
With the kind of challenges Lin has dealt with during his foray into Hollywood, he was happy to be back doing an independent film and working with old friends like Sung Kang and Roger Fan, despite having to put his own money into it and revisiting the low-budget schedule of a 19-day shoot.
"Certain things and ideas are worth protecting. Even though it's a shoe-string budget, it's worth protecting if you believe in what you do, you have to go after it," Lin says.
Lin qualifies his critique of Hollywood by saying he still wants to do studio films. "I'm not saying one's better or worse. (Studios) allow me to make films like Finishing the Game and have rent money."
But until another Asian American film comes along and makes big money at the box office, Hollywood attitudes won't change, Michael Kang says. "That's where we need to make the next step," he says. "That's what Spike Lee did with She's Gotta Have It."
THE GREAT ASIAN HOPE
Along with Finishing the Game, the other film with the best chance to become the Asian American She's Gotta Have It is Michael Kang's West 32nd, which opened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
It's a gritty, gangster flick in which John Cho (Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) plays an attorney investigating a homicide case in the Korean underworld of New York City. Starring two relatively well-known Asian American actors-Cho and Grace Park of the Sci-Fi Channel television show Battlestar Galactica-and featuring an audience-friendly action/crime format, West 32nd has box office potential.
What first got the film its proverbial "buzz" was its $2.5 million in funding from CJ Entertainment, the largest entertainment company in South Korea, producer of the Korean action hit Joint security Area and a former DreamWorks SKG investor. After the film was selected as one of only two American films in the feature competition this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, expectations were high.
"I feel a lot of pressure for West 32nd to do better because I think a lot of eyes are looking to see whether this business model makes sense," Kang says. That business model is finding Asian financing for Asian American films, which can later cross back over the Pacific to open in Asia if they get studio distribution and are big enough hits in the United States.
It remains to be seen whether West 32nd or Finishing the Game become the next She's Gotta Have It. Both are seeking studio distribution. If they get that distribution, there will be the familiar email blasts and website exhortations to watch them and great anticipation among Asian Americans. But first, the studio executives have to give them a shot.
Tomio Geron's articles have appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Sacramento Bee, end the San Francisco Chronicle. He has also produced and reported radio stories for the public radio program, Pacific Time.