“I grew up watching movies like Rambo and listening to pop songs like Tom Jones,” says Hong J. Kim about halfway through A-Town Boyz, “And I thought America is so free. I want my son to live as freely and be tough.”
Kim emigrated to America in 1984 when South Korea was still under General Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship. He went from white-collar work as a stockbroker back in his motherland to menial labour as a janitor in his newly adopted home, and slowly, over several decades, built up his own successful cleaning business while also becoming a professional golfer in the USPGA. In many ways, Kim’s story is the American Dream writ large – a rags-to-riches tale of grit and graft leading to eventual economic success. Yet this documentary feature from Eunice Lau, co-writing once again with editor Yasu Inoue (Accept the Call, 2019), is not the story of Kim, but of his son Harrison ‘Vickz’ Kim and his contemporaries. In other words, this is about immigrant experience down the line, less Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020) than Jang Hang-jun’s Open The Door (2022), in a generation who grew up neglected by their hard-working parents, culturally alienated, and desperate for a sense of belonging.
However improbably Rambo and Tom Jones might have become Kim’s key reference points for western culture, Vickz and his friends are similarly drawn to both outlaw machismo and music as expressions of their freedom. At first Vickz found the fellowship that he needed running with the Asian Gangster Crip (AGC), a criminal outfit that offers a bond of brotherhood in return for extreme loyalty. His Cambodian-American friend Jamy ‘Bizzy’ Long, whose divorced mother Sopeth Kheav would work 12 hour shifts, grew up with an uncle who was a gang leader (and founder of AGC) and with a ‘hustler’ grandmother who ran a gambling house, and who himself always “wanted to be a gangster”. If that phrase recalls the opening line of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), then these two boys’ older associate the Korean-American Eugene Chung grew up in the Italian neighbourhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York, and actually “thought I was Italian since I was a kid – I only realised I was Asian when the Italian kids made fun of me.” Beaten by his military father and bullied at school, Eugene hit back and took to the streets, selling drugs and building up his own Asian gang. Eugene is a career criminal.
Yet even as Eugene modelled himself on the neighbourhood mafiosi, and Vickz and Bizzy imitate the dress and speech patterns of African-American gangbangers, all three seek escape from criminality in music. Vickz and Bizzy do gangster rap together, and are hoping to break out and make a living that way rather than through their more illicit activities, while Eugene is investing in a Rhythm and Blues boy band in his own attempts to go legit. Amid the posturing violence and aggressive misogyny of Vickz and Bizzy’s hiphop lyrics, a slower ballad gives vent to the boys’ melancholy and regret (“I’m tired about the streets, I’m tired about the bullets coming after me”). Vickz may be tattooed all over and play tough, but he is also a loving family man with his Laotian-American girlfriend Joanne Norinh and their three children, and he is as aware as Eugene that their current lifestyle inevitably ends in being jailed or killed. The difficulty is abandoning precisely what he perceives as having made and marked him as a man.
Set in Atlanta – “cradle of the civil rights movement”, as text reminds us near the beginning – A-Town Boyz is a snapshot of racial marginalisation in contemporary America. It follows a trio of Asian lost boys, as well as the friends, family, and music industry people (music producers Daniel Eun and Dizzy ‘Kato’ Wright) in their orbit, to show both the lure, and the price, of rebelling against the national status quo. Lau’s film is both bound to a very specific time and place (Georgia, 2013-14), and yet also feels timeless, in the sense that its story has played out many times before in the different ethnic communities that make up American identity.
strap: Eunice Lau’s documentary follows an alienated second generation of Asian-Americans doing crimes and making rhymes
© Anton Bitel