Rumors circulated through Park City about a fight that broke out at a Sundance screening earlier in the week. The question and answer session for Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow erupted into a war of words at the Library screening on Wednesday, January 16th. An audience member attacked director Lin for his portrayal of Asian Americans. The director stood his ground as other members of the audience, including producer’s rep Jeff Dowd and critic Roger Ebert, came to Lin’s defense.
“I wanted to make a film about growing up in modern American suburbia and the angst and anger that are often nurtured in this environment,” said Justin Lin on a statement on his web site before even arriving at Sundance. “I was intrigued by how violence goes hand-in-hand with the oppressive nature of identity politics. In my exploration of these themes, I synthesized and incorporated much of what is seen in the news regarding teen violence, and continually found myself drawn to the same notion; that certain acts of violence – particularly those involving youth and/or ethnic minorities stem from a basic human need: the desire to belong. Better Luck Tomorrow became a coming of age story more about the loss of identity than the loss of innocence.”
On the issue of Asian Americans, Lin had this to say on his web site: “As an Asian American filmmaker, I wanted to make a movie that was real and non-apologetic, one that resisted the standard stories and stereotypes typical of recent Asian American cinema. I strove to create a film space that did not define Asian Americans in opposition to whiteness, but rather, to establish them as active participants in the ever evolving face of Americana. While the film heavily deals with identity politics, I tried to steer clear of being didactic or polemic. ”
Here is a transcript of the conflict during the Sundance Q&A session transcribed from a video taken at the event:
Justin Lin (Director): We have time for one more question.
Audience Member #1: I’m really depressed from the film. Because, one it looks very good. Two, the actors are very good. You know how to make a movie. But why would you, with the talent up there, and yourself, make a film that is so empty, amoral for Asian Americans and for Americans. I mean this is a cliché. We’ve seen it too many times at Sundance. Why don’t you challenge yourself to really look inside and see what matters to you and the writers.
Jason Tobin (actor): Yo man. I’m gonna fuckin kill ya. (joking)
Audience Member #2 : (inaudible) Leave it the way it is. You know what, this is great, that everyone got stirred up. You know what I’m saying. Brother right on!!! Keep it the way it is.
Justin Lin (Director): Sir you can finish if you like. And I mean, I think this is why…
Audience Member #3: I’m the love child of Newt Gingrich.
Justin Lin (Director): This is, I think why, we want to make it and you can please finish if you like.
Roger Fan (actor): You Know what, I really want to chime in here. I mean I’ve read my share of scripts in town, I’ve been doing this for 8 years, and when I (inaudible) picked up the script that Ernesto, Justin and Fabian wrote, I have to tell you, this was the most damned progressive script for Asian Americans I’ve ever seen in my life. ^ (applause) ^I had a great time. It’s all good.
Parry Shen (actor): To me, to me it was, I mean, once I finished reading this, it was, the moral statement was already there, it sort of ended on the note of sort of like “A Simple Plan” and “The Player” along the lines, whereas just his statement of “I want to go to a good college” it already invoked all emotions, like you know what’s right and wrong-it’s just that we’re not telling you what’s right and wrong-you know it’s sort of not hitting you over the head with a hammer about it. It’s in there.
Roger Fan (Actor): And the greatest thing about it it’s a universally American story. And that is what I really like about this script.
Jeff Dowd: I’m gonna jump in on this, I can’t help not (inaudible) There is a level of corruption of the American male right now, beyond belief, where the American male, we’re fearful of what the future (inaudible) to do. Compromise, the moral compromise they’re willing to make, to get into business. Those guys at Enron, not in the end, in the beginning knew every minute what they were doing. Oil opportunist etc. Shakespeare wrote about this. There is a movie called “The Godfather.” And in the end of “The Godfather,” Al Pacino, this wonderful war hero, Michael Corleone, looks Diane Keaton right in the eye and lies to her. And what we’re dealing with is what happens with the American male in a situation where you have to, where you have to succeed.
Audience Member #1: You are doing a disservice to this talent up there by talking about it in that way.
Roger Ebert: I want to say something.
Theater Manager: (inaudible) …thank you for coming to the screening tonight. Please pick up the things around you when you leave. And please exit to the south, that away.
Roger Ebert: I was on a panel today with Chris Eyre, the Native American director. And he said, that for a long time, his people, American Indians, had always had to play some kind of a function, like they were the source of spirituality, or the source of great wisdom and they spoke to the trees and the wind and so forth. And he wanted to make a movie that allowed Native Americans to be people. People in some cases who are alcoholics or who are vigilantes, or in prison (music interrupts) 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?” ^ This film has the right to be about these people and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to “represent” their people.
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