We Need More Alright Asian American Movies Like 'Boogie'

by Virginia Duan
Originally Published: 
Focus Features

One of the problems of practically being invisible in Hollywood — or the rest of American society unless you’re being used as a wedge to harm Black folks and other people of color — is that there is always the sense that every project must be a home run. Every show, movie, play, album — whatever — is the first something or other.

It can never just be.

It is this very same feeling that encapsulates my response to “Boogie,” the directorial debut of writer, producer, and restauranteur Eddie Huang. “Boogie” follows the coming-of-age of Alfred “Boogie” Chin (portrayed by Taylor Takahashi), a Chinese American high school basketball player with dreams of the NBA. Under pressure from his parents to earn a basketball scholarship to a Division I school, Boogie has to figure out how to navigate a new high school, girlfriend, cross-town rival, and the weight of parental expectations.

The film seems to suffer in the same way as its protagonist, the weight of Asian American expectations mixing with general market competition and newbie missteps. “Boogie” is not terrible, but it’s not that great, either. It’s an acceptable film — refreshing in the way race is neither a thing at the same time it isn’t not a thing.

“Boogie” is good enough; a satisfyingly quiet film that at first, seemed to promise a typical feel good underdog sports narrative. It is definitely not that kind of movie. Like Asian Americans, “Boogie” isn’t a movie set in any particular genre. It is in a liminal space. At its heart, the film is about love — love for our parents, for ourselves, for our lovers, and for the game.

Why “Boogie” matters

It’s hella cliché by now, but who cares? I will say it until I’m blue in the face: representation matters.

Representation matters so very, very much. Not only because the world is diverse in people and it’s world changing to see people who look like you, whose families feel like yours, whose food smells and tastes like yours — especially when you’re not used to it. But also because even within a race, there are so many stories. “The Asian American lens and experience is so important for everyone around the world to pay attention to, because of how unique it is,” Huang told NBC journalist Vicky Nguyen in a recorded interview after the Comcast NBCUniversal, Focus Features, and Motion Picture Association virtual screening. “We all have an insight to offer.”

When the only depictions of you and people who look like you follow only one storyline, you start wondering if you are who you say you are. The predominant narrative for Asian Americans is generally East Asian — and if even I, a Taiwanese Chinese American, cannot see myself in the little representation we have, how do non-East Asian Americans feel?

Asian Americans are not a monolith (yes, super overused, but still true). We are not only the struggling immigrant narrative. We are not only the nerds or martial arts experts. We can play basketball and excel at sports like Boogie does. We can date cross-racially and not have it be a big deal.

We can have parents who speak English without accents like Boogie’s parents (played by Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee) do. We can have parents and uncles with a deep understanding of Asian American history and how the dynamics play out, commenting on the significance of Michael Chang in Asian American sports history.

What “Boogie” gets right

I won’t lie. There were definitely parts of “Boogie” that made me cringe. I definitely could have done without the kitschy fortune telling scenes that both felt overly portentous and also highlighted the uneven Mandarin speaking of the different actors. (Although, props to Takahashi — an actor of Japanese descent — for trying!) The acting wasn’t always the best, but it was serviceable, and I never questioned that they were real people with real emotions and backstories.

Here’s what I loved the most about “Boogie”: the details were spot on. Obviously, not every Chinese or Taiwanese household is the same — but there were enough subtle notes that I felt as if I could trust the movie as a fellow Taiwanese Chinese American (albeit, 25 years older). From how the parents spoke to Boogie, their dreams and expectations of him, and how they argued and lived, it all felt familiar.

I loved the vulnerability depicted by Boogie when he and his girlfriend, Eleanor (played by Taylour Paige), first attempted to take their relationship to the next physical level. I appreciated the sensitivity with which “Boogie” approached the stereotypes about Asian men and their masculinity and sexual prowess. The scene made my heart ache. I also rejoiced that “Boogie” didn’t neuter Boogie like “Romeo Must Die” did to the sexy BAMF Jet Li in his lukewarm romance with Aaliyah. (A crime from which I still have yet to recover.)

And oddly enough, I really welcomed the ending (I promise, no spoilers) that critics seemed to have panned. It’s not your typical sports movie ending — it isn’t even your typical romance ending. It’s an ending and a beginning and likely the most realistic part of the movie.

Why good enough is great

Is “Boogie” the next “Minari”? Not remotely. Is it even on the level of “Harold and Kumar”? Nope!

But you know what? I don’t care.

If shit like “Everybody Loves Raymond” can run for nine seasons, then mediocre fare like “Dr. Ken” could have lasted for more than two seasons.

I want there to be so many Asian stories, so many POC stories, so many LGBTQIA+ stories — I want all the non-white stories and especially all the non-white male stories — that we flood the market with excellence. But not just excellence. I want us to be so many — of such multitude — that we are also good enough, just okay, and mediocre. And honestly, I want all the dreck and dross and actual shit, too.

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