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Saturday, June 26, 2010

"I Am Somebody" film review - offering a Chinese-American perspective on the early American West

"A Chinaman's chance" means "no chance in hell." Out in the more politically correct mid-Atlantic, I never actually came across this phrase in public conversation. However, I've heard that it's still used in other parts of the US.

The historical plight of Chinese-Americans is less well known than that of other minorities in America. While many Americans may know that it was Chinese labor which helped build the railroads, considerably fewer would be able to tell you of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), which outlawed Chinese immigration to America and denied citizenship to those Chinese already residing there.

Yesterday, I saw "I Am Somebody" by Aki Aleong, shown as part of the currently ongoing Beijing International Film Festival, a movie which attempts to address this period in Chinese-American history. It's unique in that it takes the traditional Western genre then gives it a refreshing twist: telling the tale from the perspective of a young Chinese coolie, and deals with the sort of violence and discrimination early Chinese in America (among other minorities) dealt with.

The film is important in that it provides a rare insight into the lives of Chinese-American coolies, who helped to build the 17 railroad lines which united the US, a monumental act of intense physical labor under miserable conditions that was pivotal to the country's economic development. The narrative offers a welcome alternative to the traditional 'hero' mythology of rugged cowboy heroes and heathen Indians, instead paying honor to the many Chinese laborers who struggled for dignity within a society so clearly unwilling to confer it upon them. It is styled as a traditional morality film, and as such, pulls no punches about what it wishes to convey: that Chinese in America were treated as non-citizens (non-humans even) by White America, that they were mistreated and murdered without just trial, and that they and other minority groups (and sympathetic Whites) banded together to help one another.

It's plot is typical of such morality tales: In the 1890s American West, Sing, an honest young coolie (played by Reggie Lee, a Philipino-American actor) is falsely accused of the murder of a white girl and must escape from a posse of vigilante white racists. He's supported along the way by a black friend (played by Coolio, interestingly enough, though no rapping takes place), a Mexican love interest, a mixed-race couple and a pastor. Many die: there's cold-blooded murder out on the railroad construction site, the hanging of an innocent old Chinese man, and lots of Western stand-off gun battles.

While Mr. Aleong was able to secure a number of reasonably well-known actors into the film, "I Am Somebody" remains a decidedly B-level production. The acting is over-the-top, lines are painfully cheesy and the script is filled with cliche and lacking in originality. The cinematography and audio production is reasonable, but I still found myself cringing during some of the half-baked action sequences and long biblical passages. The Chinese-English dialogue pandered unfortunately closely to lame stereotypes, with a typical line by Old Sing's character sounding something like: "We must be like water flow into must make money, send back home to China!"

"I Am Somebody" is essentially a personal labor of love of Mr. Aleong, who wrote, directed, acted, sung for the soundtrack of, and probably maintains the website for the movie. After the film, Aleong, who is of half-Chinese, half-Cuban descent, spoke of how the film was essentially about himself - the name of the protagonist and the protagonist's older friend are both his own. It took him three years to complete, and he was particularly interested to see how it resonated with a Chinese audience (from mainland China).

The Chinese in the audience expressed gratitude for the film, and when asked if they understood its message, nodded their heads earnestly.

Interestingly enough, those qualities that would make it commercially unviable in the west: lower production qualities, exaggerated acting and cheesy dialogue/characters, would have no such impact upon its chances of finding distribution here in China, where such characteristics define local productions. I can definitely see a lot of potential for "I Am Somebody" to be broadcast on CCTV: the film would serve as a good introduction to Chinese-American history for the country's mainstream audience, even if the polarized good guy-bad guy characterization may not carry the best timing given the increasingly strained state of Sino-American relations. What the film would provide, however, is historical context for the millions of Chinese here with dreams of America--particularly young aspiring students applying to university there--regarding those who went before them and the injustice they suffered.

At this stage in contemporary movie-making, it's sad that stories and perspectives such as this can only emerge in the well-intentioned though unpolished DIY efforts of individuals like Mr. Aleong. I congratulate him on his accomplishment in creating this unique film, warts and all. Here's to hoping that such stories will one day garner enough viewership and funding support to allow for more films that explore these many buried narratives within American history.



Official movie site:
Wikipedia article on Chinese-American history: