After the Crash
Writer/director Eric Byler prefaced the screening of AMERICANese on Monday night by saying, "Just to save time, I'll answer the first question now: I'm half-Asian and half-white." He leaned in to the mic, perfectly deadpan. "This is what we look like."
The line earned a big laugh, but there was a resignation to it, one that is mirrored just minutes into Byler's film, in which a total stranger asks the lead, Aurora (played by Allison Sie), "What are you, anyway?" The answer is half-Japanese, half-white, and that answer has everything, and nothing, to do with AMERICANese.
The film is Byler's follow-up to Charlotte Sometimes, which won the Audience Award at SXSW Film 02 and earned the filmmaker two Independent Spirit nominations. Adapted from Shawn Wong's 1995 novel American Knees, Byler's latest is what the filmmaker calls "the epilogue to a romance," in which its central ex-lovers Aurora and Raymond (Chris Tashima), a Chinese-American university professor, struggle to remain friends in the wake of a breakup, one that was inspired, in some part, by racial tension.
Byler hopes that the universality of his characters' humanity trumps the question of their ethnicity. But there is something quietly revolutionary in the film's depiction of an Asian-American actor in a romantic leading man role.
"If there's an Asian man in a movie, he's usually a henchman, a ninja. ... Or, he can be a technician of some kind, a scientist," Byler says. "We had Sulu on Star Trek, and for how many years and how many episodes, he pushed all the buttons correctly and never wrecked the ship. But he never ever ever had a date. Not once."
Byler is quick to point out that his film is not a political piece about racism. "It's about people who deal with racism, not about the issue itself. In AMERICANese, you're actually looking at how people of color cope with the issue in real life, not the way that it's dramatized in the movies.
"Crash is a really good example [of that]," he continues. "Ever since [The] Birth of a Nation, it's always been racial conflict erupting in violence. For a person of color, you don't need to have somebody hanging upside down by a seat belt about to catch on fire to conclude that racism is bad. You just know. You just know it in your heart."
AMERICANese received the Narrative Feature Audience Award at SXSW Film 06, as well as a Special Jury Award for Outstanding Ensemble Cast.