Smashing stereotypes in 15 minutesXploitasian [eks ploy tay’ zhun]
1. A phrase for a new genre of films that smashes Asian stereotypes coined by the director Joe Kim.
4. A movement
Philadelphia native Joe Kim is many things: a bit nihilistic, a little bitter, slightly Spike Lee and a manic workaholic. Officially, Mr. Kim is the founder of independent film production label Xploitasian Flix, for which he also films, directs and writes.
Mr. Kim’s not one to back down from amplifying controversy in America. He’s been stomping over cultural minefields since his years at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he created his first independent short film, “The Coloreds: An XploitAsian Flick.” In that production, Kim aggressively mashed relatively blatant Asian American stereotypes to produce an unsettling depiction of the negative effects of bigotry. Not surprisingly, audiences received the film a bit, let us say, gingerly.
Kim’s techniques and style have evolved since “The Coloreds.” His latest short, the 15-minute “A Primer,” reflects this growth. While “A Primer” probes the same controversial stereotypes associated with Asian Americans as “The Coloreds” did, it is more acerbic.
Set in Philadelphia, the film follows two disillusioned Asian American men through one day in their gray, angst-filled existences. Throughout, viewers observe how Lewis and Jack confront barriers that stymie Asian Americans in various situations.
In one scene, Lewis, played by rapper DYP tha Goldynchild, improvises some witty lyrics during a freestyle rap session with a group of black kids in Philadelphia’s back alleys.
Later, Lewis is shown snapping at a white guy who tells a crude Asian joke, using a sentence composed of nothing but profanities.
Jack, played by James Chen, takes a more passive-aggressive approach to the seemingly nonstop deluge of stereotypes being flung at the duo. His brutal epiphany comes as the two suddenly find themselves atop a building that overlooks an oddly beautiful Philadelphia at sunset. In a vehement climactic rant, Jack bares his soul to the urban sprawl in the distance as he realizes that perhaps the majority of Americans are not entirely at fault for the labels that objectify Asians.
Lewis, of course, will have none of it, and the two end up in denial while sullenly nursing some beers at an eerily quiet club.
That’s the meat of “A Primer;” the rest is a montage of scenes that accomplish what Kim intended: to smash Asian stereotypes.
The director makes sure his audience grasps his antipathy toward the entertainment industry’s martial arts movies and its portrayal of Asian women as submissive. Between scenes, certain cuts show Asians breaking the stereotypes on their own.
Want to see an Asian dunk a basketball (Yao Ming, who can touch the rim standing, excluded)? Want to hear revolutionary music from underground Asian-American lyricists? Want to hear Asian-American spoken word poet Catzie Vilayphonh (of Def Jam’s Def Poetry Jam) speak her mind on the fly? “A Primer” has it all, though not always in a very coherent fashion. The unexpected twists come too abruptly, and the lack of transitions between scenes leaves viewers wondering what just hit them after crucial sequences.
For a debut effort, however, “A Primer” is professional and insightful in ways that are merely implied in the film’s final version. The scripting was done mostly for the sake of providing guidelines and directions; actors Park and Chen had significant freedom in deciding their characters’ lines and behavior. Many scenes were filmed in one take and were largely improvised, which is reflected in the gritty realism that is pervasive in the film.
Thus, while “A Primer” is somewhat overblown in displaying the ugly side of things, the themes are easy to relate to, ethnicity aside. In this regard, the spontaneity works to spark the reaction that Kim wanted to ignite.
“A Primer” is not for the meek, which should be a warning as Kim plots his next moves in his personal war against stereotypes in the United States.
In an e-mail interview, Kim wrote, “To me, ‘A Primer’ is not just a film. It’s [a] definition: An intro and an explosive used to set off a larger explosive. This is my intro and my primer to my next step, which is making a feature film about Asian Americans.”
by Phil Chang