This month Cinema Asian America presents the directorial debut of San Jose, CA-based filmmaker Byron Q, “Bang Bang.” Critically acclaimed at film festivals throughout the country, “Bang” is:
“The story of two Asian American teenagers dealing with deteriorating family lives and escalating gang violence. Thai Ngo, best known as Portland, Oregon rap artist “Thai,” makes his acting debut as Justin, a resilient Vietnamese teenager looking for a way out of the gang life. Seeking freedom from his mother and dysfunctional household, Justin runs away from home and stays with his friend, the Taiwanese rich kid Charlie (David Huynh). Justin’s character (which closely mirrors Thai’s own experiences of being fatherless, surrounded by violence, and “gang banging as a kid”), is finally presented with the opportunity of an alternative, through the world of hip-hop. Meanwhile, Charlie desperately tries to prove himself to Justin and the rest of the gang as they are caught up in an escalating gang war. Ultimately, Bang Bang is a compelling coming-of-age story of two very different Asian American youths as they struggle for survival.” – San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
Q discussed the making of “Bang Bang.”
The plot of “Bang Bang” in many ways a familiar one – the story of a troubled young man who is looking for an escape from an oppressive environment. But at the same time, there is a specificity of a suburban Asian American life, and the violence and gang activity that fill it, which distinguishes the film. Can you discuss where this story came from? What drew you to this world?
BQ: This story came from my teenage years growing up in San Jose, CA in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. San Jose has a big Asian population, as well as Hispanics. A lot of Vietnamese and Southeast Asians lived in the Eastside along with the Hispanics, and the Westside was the affluent side which grew with the rise of the tech industry. A lot of Taiwanese families lived on the Westside. I knew a lot of Taiwanese kids who were the so-called “parachute” kid, where their families were very well off but they often left their child at home with no guidance and brand new BMW’s. A lot of them wanted to be seen as “gangsters”, and often tried to hang out with some of the bad kids from the Eastside to give them that street credibility. You get this mix of two different worlds and kids with no role models and no guidance. Its interesting because on the surface they come from different backgrounds, but essentially they all come from broken families and are searching for some meaning in life.
Your lead, Thai Ngo, who plays the character of Justin, is a well known rapper based in Portland– can you talk about how you became of aware of him as a performer, and your decision to cast him in what would be his first feature?
BQ: I had known about Thai when I was in high school because he had a song called “Vietnamese Gang” that went viral. This is before YouTube, Facebook, or any sort of social media except maybe Asian Avenue. Every Vietnamese kid had it memorized. Guys were bumpin’ that song before they went to rumble with other crews. He was like the Tupac to Vietnamese gangsters. I needed some sort of name talent in the film, and he was perfect for it. His own background mirrors that of the character in the film. Thai in real life was a gangster and by age 13 had already been arrested for attempted murder. Later he turned to music to try to find another path to drive himself and now he’s a successful independent artist. I wanted the authenticity and I believed Thai could do it. We actually connected through MySpace, and I sent him the script. He read it and then came out to San Diego for a meeting. The rest is history.
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Discuss the kind of realism you sought to create in “Bang Bang”, and the world which you wished to represent. What were the creative choices in conveying this, from casting non-professional actors, many whom are gang members, to your depictions of violence?
BQ: Growing up I always wanted to see an Asian gang version of “Boyz N the Hood”. I could never find it. Some of the ones that I found seemed fake, just didn’t do it for me. For my film I wanted the dialogue and situations to be realistic, and most importantly the actors to look the part. Because there’s not that many Asian actors out there, it was difficult to find actors who could really portray the part, and so I decided to find the real gangsters and put them in my film. In the scenes of violence, I wanted to have the viewers see it from a distance, and have their own imaginations fill in the gaps.
You have a background in making hip hop music videos. Was making “Bang Bang” and building a longer-form narrative that incorporated performers, and musical subplots a natural progression from this?
BQ: Yes, I guess it can be seen like that. I got burnt out from making music videos, especially dealing with rappers who were trying to be cheap.
What are you working on now?
BQ: I have a documentary called “Raskal Love” which has been making the festival rounds in last year. In a sense, it is a part two of my exploration of the world of Asian gangs. The documentary is about the life of Vanna Fut, who is an actor in “Bang Bang”, and also an OG of the biggest Asian gang in the US, Tiny Raskal Gang. It also talks about how we made Bang Bang and how the film impacted his own life. My newest project is a film called “Las Vegas Story”, which will be premiering this summer. It’s a narrative film about a single mother who works as an escort in Las Vegas. For updates just follow me on twitter.