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Not a geisha to be found

Filmmaker Eric Byler nixes tired cliches in his drama featuring Asian Americans.

June 19, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

A group of young Chinese American professionals -- mostly in their 20s and 30s -- is gathered around Eric Byler as he hands out colored postcards for the opening of his first feature film, "Charlotte Sometimes." Energized by the need to sell the film to this potential audience, director-screenwriter Byler delivers his punch line with expert timing: "What I say is that this is a movie about Asian Americans having sex -- with each other." A round of laughter.

They know what he means. In far too many silver screen projections, the white guy gets the Asian girl -- from "The World of Suzie Wong" to "Shogun" to more recent films like "Come See the Paradise" or "The Quiet American." So it's a novelty when Byler says this, at a joint picnic for the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Chinese Lawyers Assn., and his audience is intrigued.

The only thing is, Byler looks Caucasian, and there's been an uproar in the www.modelminority.com chat room about how the "white male" in "Charlotte Sometimes" again gets the Chinese girlfriend. A typical posting shouted, "Boycott this garbage!"

So Byler goes on the defensive. Many of the Web site's opinion-holders haven't laid eyes on the film. They certainly don't know that the so-called "white male" is played by Matt Westmore, who is part Indonesian. He's "hapa," or half, like Byler. "My mother's Chinese," Byler says, "and here she is to prove it."

Donna Tom Byler has flown in from Burke, Va., to spend time with her son and help his cause -- she, too, is armed with postcards and is chatting up the crowd. She and her husband, in fact, invested most of the initial money for the project, which was done on digital for $20,000 and later bumped up to 35-millimeter with additional funding. "Eric really wanted to do this," she says, "and we felt we ought to support him on it." Does she like the film? She nods, then adds with a half-embarrassed smile, "There's just a little too much sex in it."There is sex in the film, but there is also a lot more. A languorously told drama that unfolds in Silver Lake, the film follows the predicament of Michael (Michael Idemoto), an auto mechanic who's secretly in love with his neighbor, Lori (Eugenia Yuan), who has a hunky live-in boyfriend, Justin (Westmore). Into this triangle steps the mysterious Darcy (Jacqueline Kim), a writer who likes to stir up people's lives.

The festival circuit has given the film a boost, as well as nominations for best feature under $500,000 and Kim as best supporting actress at the Independent Spirit Awards.

While all the main characters are Asian or partly Asian, the film, like Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow," makes little direct reference to their ethnicity. Still, as Idemoto says during an interview at a Silver Lake cafe, "when people see [racial] color on film, they expect to see representation." It's a dilemma that Byler and Kim, also present, struggle with as well.

All three moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Byler grew up in Hawaii; Idemoto, who is Japanese American, is from Freedom, an agricultural town in Northern California; and Kim, a Korean American, is from Detroit. All grew up immersed in mainstream American culture -- Byler's heroes were the characters from "The Dukes of Hazzard," Kim took her cues from watching "The Brady Bunch" and Idemoto recalls speaking English and Spanish before he learned Japanese.

Of the three, Kim has had the most professional experience. "My parents wanted me to become a doctor, and I decided to become an actor," she says, "and at that point I took a serious left turn from what was expected of me." Although she got into the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, "I couldn't get to the main stage." Then she was discovered by Garland Wright, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater Co. in Minneapolis. Her roles included Electra in Sophocles' "Electra" and Nina in Chekhov's "The Seagull."

"Coming to Hollywood in 1994 was really trippy," she says. Kim "had never lived in a community of Asian Americans where there was an Asian American context for everything," but she found a real racial barrier in casting. "In television and movies, there's less imagination for what an Asian can play," she says.

Kim has managed to get by on occasional television ("ER," "Xena: Warrior Princess") and movie roles ("Brokedown Palace," "Disclosure"), but because "Jacqueline does not represent the image that mainstream media's accustomed to," Byler suggests, she hasn't been offered romantic parts. "I think she's very sexy, but she's not sexy in a way that makes a small man feel bigger -- that's what this lotus flower/geisha type is supposed to do." Then there's the other side of that stereotype, "the S&M bondage dragon lady," who's hypersexual, he says.

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