We Need More Filmmakers Like Justin Lin to Explore Asian-Americana

Lin is back to his Asian-American underdog roots with his new Chinatown bank prosecution picture.
By  · Published on September 12th, 2017

Lin is back to his Asian-American underdog roots with his new Chinatown bank prosecution picture.

More than anything, 2017 has shown how bad habits in Hollywood can, in fact, be fractured. Perhaps it is dismissive to collectively term the systemic erasure of people of color from the big screen a “bad habit,” but what I mean by that is it’s easy to get lazy with the convenience of it. Even in this day and age, people see caricatures of certain demographics onscreen and either laugh or stay silent. The formula continues while marginalized communities endure.

But filmmakers increasingly set out with the express intent of representation and actors willingly vacate roles in the name of social justice. And thankfully, Deadline’s announcement that Justin Lin will be tackling the story of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank’s mortgage fraud prosecution fits right in alongside those instances of progress.

Lin is set to develop an adaptation of the Steve James documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The film will, like the doc, focus on the Sung family’s small Chinatown-based bank and its fierce battle against the Manhattan District Attorney. It is a case of deep injustice, wherein a tiny local bank was the only institution prosecuted in the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. The insultingly lenient treatment tendered to much larger banks for similar culpabilities on an enormous scale added salt to injury. Of the project, Lin states:

“This is a quintessential American story told from a point of view that is rarely seen on screen. The Sung family’s collective act of courage needs to be told, especially now.”

Indeed, this is a huge step forward in the quest to include more Asian Americans on film. Audiences may be more familiar with Lin’s work on blockbusters like the Fast and Furious movies and Star Trek Beyond. However, his roots in the Asian-American film community run deep with early indies like Shopping for Fangs and Better Luck Tomorrow. The latter was even a festival darling and is often cited as an important addition to the Asian-American representational landscape onscreen. Hence, it is particularly satisfying that, in the wake of Lin’s large-scale successes, he remains committed to the socially conscious filmmaking he started out with.

Asian-American discrimination materializes in less obvious ways to many. There are multitudes of stereotypes about those who “appear” to fall under that demographic, “positive” or otherwise. To name a few, there are those who are considered meek and submissive, sexually voracious (women) or completely void of sexuality (men), those who are far too overachieving for their own good.

But Otherizing isn’t just an external practice. Matthew Salesses’ searing essay describes a struggle of invisibility attached to owning an Asian-American identity. Salesses goes deep into the cultural inequalities that underpin racist slurs, the unfairly high academic expectations of Asian-American students (also discussed in this New Yorker article, in case the point doesn’t drive home hard enough), and the “model minority” trope we know so well:

“I had grown up constantly wavering between denying and suspecting that my skin color was behind the fights picked with me, the insults, the casual distance kept up even between myself and some of my closest friends. Sometimes—in retrospect: oftentimes—these incidents were obviously rooted in race.”

The real-life prosecution of the Sung family business showcased a more obvious, concerted effort to villainize a specific community by attacking a small establishment in its heart. But the sentiment of Otherness remained the same. These are situations that just aren’t often addressed within a mainstream narrative. There are those who aren’t looking the right way in the first place, and many who have internalized the apparent obscurity of a “generalized” Asian experience in America — one that is distinctly foreign to American culture.

It’s what makes voices like Justin Lin’s so salient to forming nuanced perspectives on the subject. Per his own words, the Abacus adaptation will be a primarily American story. Rather than focusing solely on outliers, it aims to tackle the intersections of identity that make up immigrant communities.

Perhaps even more vitally, the film will particularly serve Chinese Americans well. Asian Americans already operate rather invisibly in Hollywood, give or take a couple of exceptions. But as it is, “Asian” is a vast connotation on its own. Specifics also matter, in this case, because the number of movies depicting Chinese-American life is laughably small. Of course, this Wikipedia list isn’t exhaustive. However, test oneself and name some Chinese-American films that make it to the mainstream, and the fact of underrepresentation is pretty much indisputable.

With the constant uproar surrounding the specific whitewashing of fictional characters of Asian descent, as well as that strange claim by a casting director that Asians “aren’t expressive enough” (this hashtag begs to differ), the adamant localization of Asian identity has become a moral imperative that needs to be addressed everywhere. Hollywood is no different. As Abacus Federal Savings Bank founder Thomas Sung muses, “[Their story is] a cautionary tale about the larger struggle for justice in our community.” With his blockbuster credentials and his heart set on the subject, Lin may just be the perfect man for the job.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)