Eric Byler was somewhat excited when his film Charlotte Sometimes was named “Best Narrative Feature” at the 2002 San Diego Asian Film Festival over Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow.
For the young filmmaker, the accolade was tainted slightly by racial profiling of a cultural sort.
“Even though they knew I won the award [beforehand], it seems the festival didn't have any money for me for a hotel until they found out I was half-Asian,” says Byler, whose mother is Chinese-American.
For Byler, however, the trip to San Diego was a return to one of his homes-from 1972 to 1975, he lived on Galahad Road while his father attended University of San Diego law school.
“We lived in L.A. and moved to San Diego as soon as I was born,” Byler recalls. “I remember ‘Albert the Gorilla' at the San Diego Zoo. I had a poster of him and he was just my favorite thing in the world.
“I remember threatening to chop down USD because my dad was always there.”
During this time, Byler's mother sold Tupperware and gave birth to Eric's sister, Monica. After graduation, the elder Byler joined the military as a lawyer and the family moved to Hawaii.
Now, after paying his dues at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, directing theater, writing screenplays on spec and being rejected by Hollywood because his scripts were “too Asian,” Eric, his parents and other family members have pumped $50,000 into Charlotte Sometimes.
Set in the Los Angeles enclave of Silver Lake, the film is a well-crafted tale about the lives of four people who happen to be, to different degrees, Asian-American.
Byler originally wrote Charlotte Sometimes (yes, it is an ode to The Cure song) as a romantic comedy with a simplistic, spastic-guy-gets-gorgeous-girl storyline.
“It was a stupid movie,” he admits. “And they said I could direct the stupid movie and I said, ‘I would be embarrassed to direct this-this is shit.' I wanted to sell it to the studios for a million dollars, but I wouldn't touch it.”
So Byler stopped thinking about what was marketable and followed his artistic instincts. He purged the film of “ridiculous things” and revised the plotline to explore human reticence when it comes to love. He imagined what would happen if the guy in the film pretended not to love the girl. And the girl-she pretended not to know. For the sake of resonance, Byler explored the culture he knew best.
“I just started with that and I made them Asian-American because it is what I know,” he explains.
On page, the film was unmarketable to Hollywood and script changes were requested. For two years, Byler tried to raise money, but no one was willing to fund an artistically ambitious film with an Asian-American cast.
“It was marginalizing yourself twice,” Byler says. “I don't blame these people for saying either ‘no' or saying ‘we like it but you got to change one thing.'”
Roles for Asian-Americans are rarely seen in American cinema; when they are, it's seldom positive. The recent success of actors like Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu may be helping to change that, but even these stars are often flanked by white supporting actors so that white Americans have a character they can racially identify with. That's why a film like Charlotte Sometimes-which has no white actors-was a hard sell among Hollywood's underwriters.
“There was [an intention to] not use Asian-ness as a form of characterization,” says Byler. “That is something I think everyone's been guilty of. Non-Asian writers, when they need ‘henchman No. 3' to look different than ‘henchman No. 2,' they make him Asian. Or they need the villain especially lascivious and deadly so they make him Asian. Or they need the temptress to be especially sexy and off-limits, so they make her Asian. All of these are clichés not based on people they know but based upon what they know from other people's movies.”
These stereotypes may be due to subconscious forces or plain old laziness, rather than intentional marginalizing of Asian-American culture. Even Asian-American writers, Byler says, are guilty of perpetuating the stereotypes.
“You have Asian-Americans telling their own stories that, again, Asian-ness is the first thing and their character takes a back seat,” he explains. “All these movies are about our culture, our history-they have a political statement like ‘Racism is bad.'
“And all those things are so subconscious about being Asian. [Messages like], ‘Hey we can be like you' or ‘Hey, you need some diversity training. Sit down for two hours and learn a lesson.' But the character is always taking a back seat.”
On the other hand, he says, films like Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow are “just trying to show that Asians can behave in the exact same way that white people behave in movies.”
With the exception of a remark or two, the characters of Charlotte Sometimes are not conscious of their Asian-ness because, without non-Asians in the film, there is no Other that causes them assume the outsider role.
“At first it investigates who we are and then it finds its story inside that,” Byler says.