They Were Made to Choose Sides: On Eunice Lau’s “A-Town Boyz”

By Ellen SongMarch 19, 2024

They Were Made to Choose Sides: On Eunice Lau’s “A-Town Boyz”
IN 2015, I saw a trailer for Eunice Lau’s A-Town Boyz, a documentary chronicling the experiences of Asian American men in Atlanta gangs. The trailer stunned me with a depiction of Asians in the States that I’d hardly seen before on screen: wearing fitted hats, covered in tattoos, rapping, getting into fights. A father of one gang member says, in Korean, “My life is in a shamble.” The year 2015 wasn’t even a decade ago, but it feels like a different time. Barack Obama was still president, and it seemed like few people, if any, were taking Donald Trump seriously. There was still much ado about the meaning of a “postrace” era. It was the year Fresh Off the Boat first aired on ABC, praised for being the first Asian American show on network TV since 1994’s All-American Girl, which starred Margaret Cho. This was before Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and Parasite (2019), and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), and the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), and Past Lives (2023).

Watching the trailer, I felt two distinct shocks. First, that of recognition: Anyone who’s lived among the Asian American working poor knows that we don’t all grow up to be doctors and lawyers. Then, one of surprise: That there were enough people out there who thought it important to document these lives and bring them to the screen. If those people were anything like me, they, too, were desperate to see reflected the pathologies they had thought unique to their families, shaped as they were by the mediating circumstances of class, race, and immigration.

I waited patiently for the film to come out, thinking it might show my family something about itself.

I ended up waiting over eight years.


A-Town Boyz premiered in 2023 at the Asian Film Festival in New York City, its release delayed due to budget constraints, prison time for the subjects, and concerns about legal liabilities. Produced by Lau’s company, Delphin Films, A-Town Boyz centers on the experiences of three men: Harrison “Vickz” Kim, a rapper and the son of a striving Korean small-business owner; Jamy “Bizzy” Long, Vickz’s creative partner, the son of a single mother from Cambodia; and Eugene Chung, a Korean American leader of a gang “empire,” disowned by his family after he fired a gun at his own brother.

The men explain how they ended up in gangs. A common thread is a familiar one: the allure of money and power. Bizzy grew up playing with “rocks and sticks” but dreams of getting his mother out of their bullet hole–riddled home in the ethnic ghetto. After being disowned, Eugene needed money and found it intoxicating to make $20,000 to $30,000 every couple of days from “shilling.” Vickz says he wants to take care of his young children, even though “gangbanging” does not provide stability.

Aside from this stated need to get cash fast, each man, in his own idiosyncratic way, describes and embodies common facets of Asian American immigrant life. These include intergenerational conflicts, near-mythically overworked parents, racial discrimination, and interethnic animosities and solidarities, with gangs organized according to national origin.

By spotlighting poor and downwardly mobile second-generation Asian Americans operating in underground economies, A-Town Boyz truly diversifies racial representation—for those of us who might care about that sort of thing. More importantly, A-Town Boyz displays, in all their complexity, two core ambiguities of Asian American life: the drive for an “American dream” defined, somewhat contradictorily, by both financial success and self-determination, and an ancillary, not-white but not-Black racial position in a society structured by a binary.

As a work in the lineage of cinema verité, a style of documentary premised on close contact and active engagement with subjects, A-Town Boyz prioritizes an intimate picture of its subjects’ lives. For the most part, the subjects don’t perform for the camera or engage with the filmmaker. But Lau’s presence is always felt, occasionally in an audible question posed to a subject, more frequently in her shaky handheld camera, and throughout in the decision to depict the dramas of these men’s lives. A journalist by training, committed to projects of truth-telling, Lau excels in this mode.

These dramas are, however, framed by a clear history lesson. A-Town Boyz opens with a one-minute black-and-white photomontage depicting Asian laborers in the 20th-century United States, from railroad workers to seamstresses to small business owners. The film thus begins with the apparent agenda of elucidating the ways Asians in the US are connected through their relationship to labor. Lau is right to point out that Asians have been in the United States a long time—doing unglamorous, backbreaking work—and that issues facing them today must be understood in historical context.

But the lesson runs the risk of starting the movie on the wrong foot, and not just because it features an anachronism—one image is overlaid with the phrase “Asian American 1903,” a curious decision considering that the term “Asian American” is widely understood to have emerged during the midcentury Civil Rights Movement. It also, more worryingly, prompts two reductive and perhaps dubious interpretations of the movie that follow: that gang work is just another form of non-white-collar work, not so different from laundries or restaurants; that a lifetime of struggle growing up in disadvantaged immigrant families has led Vickz, Bizzy, and Eugene to join gangs. These concerns are compounded by the film’s other notable weakness, a cartoonishly animated sequence of gang life that, while surely a compromise solution to the problem of presenting the subjects’ illegal activity, diminishes the dire seriousness of gang life and clashes with the tone of the film.

Viewers should persist through this opening, though, because A-Town Boyz ultimately proves a unique, refreshing addition to the recent efflorescence of visual media addressing Asian American life. In the Q and A following the film’s premiere at Lincoln Center, Lau explained that she “wanted to dispel this myth that […] Asian Americans had it easy,” the idea that they “drive around nice cars,” they “go to good schools,” and “there’s a white-collar job” waiting for them. In other words, Lau wanted to dispel the model minority myth, which promotes individualistic notions of success over community-minded activism or outreach. As a film that subverts the trope of the Asian American model minority, A-Town Boyz might seem unremarkable today, now that stereotype-defying, often irreverent Asian American films and TV shows—Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens (2020– ), Shortcomings (2023), Joy Ride (2023), Beef (2023), and The Brothers Sun (2024), among many others—populate our screens. (A friend recently asked me, “Do we have too much representation now?”)

But the documentary, despite being in good company with many of these works, isn’t fun, which makes its completion, over 10 years after filming began, a miracle. It isn’t giving Asian American actors and characters the chance to shine with the kind of complex narrative arcs and punchlines historically reserved for their white counterparts. It’s something else: a self-possessed expository work that forces Asian Americans to contend with what it takes not just to spoof the notion of the model minority but to reject it entirely.


Recent Asian American works have attempted to subvert ethnic stereotypes and clichés in one way or another, making them political even when they are not overtly so, even if their creators might chafe at such a label.

Many of the writer-directors of the movies and television shows mentioned above attended elite colleges and are undoubtedly eager to shake off the stereotype of the nerdy, one-note Asian American student with a low “personality score,” a stereotype explicitly acknowledged in groundbreaking earlier comedies like 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in which Kumar, born into a family of doctors, briefly resists the call of med school. In recent works, working-class characters forgo higher education altogether. In the Netflix series Beef, Danny (Steven Yeun) and Paul (Young Mazino) don’t go to college, and Joy (Stephanie Hsu) of Everything Everywhere All at Once is a dropout. Given the real-life context in which Asians are “overrepresented” at colleges and play a key role in national conversations about affirmative action in higher education, academically unsuccessful characters must be seen as a pointed, deliberate move to avoid the model minority altogether.

A great many other works, like most that involve Awkwafina (Nora Lum)—from Crazy Rich Asians to The Farewell (2019) to Nora from Queens to Quiz Lady (2023)—feature characters at odds with the polished second-generation Asian American, be they partiers, slackers, stoners, or thugs. And then there are Fire Island (2022), The Brothers Sun, and other works that make it a point to show shirtless Asian men with six-pack abs, restoring virile sexuality to a long-emasculated group.

I call these works “irreverent” because many rely on absurdity, fantasy, and self-deprecating comedy to defuse the unspoken tension at the heart of each film. That conflict results from the pull of opposing representational schemes: of Asian Americans as they’ve historically been depicted in mainstream media—as unattractive butts of jokes or as unfeeling robot workers—and how they might want to be seen today—as respected, financially powerful, interesting, and sexy members of a heterogeneous demographic. Humor attenuates that tension. The conventions of comedy—whether sly and verbal or broad and physical—offer the readiest means by which to present Asian Americans in their multidimensional, complex humanity.

A-Town Boyz offers no such attenuation, no respite from reality. The film’s subjects speak for themselves, unmediated by harebrained schemes or hotdog fingers. They demand to be taken seriously: as complicated people, as immigrant sons who are gangsters, as Asians who “sound Black” without necessarily trying to.

We see a complicated, paradoxical figure like Eugene, an anti-model minority who curiously remains, in his own way, a filial Asian son, one who reports that his only regret is having “dishonored [his] parents.” Even as he started selling drugs, he says, he hoped to “one day show my parents that I went to school, [that] I paid for my own school [and] did everything on my own.” Eugene may boast of his power as a gang boss and fighter, but in one of the few moments he’s shown at work, he’s standing in front of an open U-Haul, directing his men to gather and resell an antiquated computer monitor. It will go for $10 or $15 tops, but, as he explains, it’s “still a dollar. It all adds up, you know?”

Eugene finds his fictional form in a show like Beef, combining aspects of Korean American Danny, a shady small-business owner who aspires to filial piety, and Isaac (David Choe), a charming ex-con huckster. Beef tempers the emotional reach of the Cho cousins’ motivations and shame with a narrative arc that descends into total absurdity, but A-Town Boyz is not self-conscious about showing Eugene’s bravado and, by the end of the film, emphasizing his regret. Over the years of filming, Eugene contradicts himself, saying tropey things while doing the opposite. His incomprehensibility, to himself and to viewers, is one of the film’s strengths, making it simultaneously unsentimental and poignant, earnest at times but without being embarrassing.


The ideal length of a documentary, as Lau told me, is short: “It’s hard to build a mass audience for documentaries, so we have to be conscious about the length. You meet distributors and producers who tell you […] that 75 minutes is the new 90 minutes.” The limited space means that documentarians must ruthlessly cut scenes. To Lau’s credit, she excluded numerous tired clichés to keep the film to 72 minutes, including a “smelly lunchbox” moment, a common Asian American childhood racial trauma. (Mine: A white classmate spat out the homemade gyeran-mari I offered her during lunch one day in fifth grade.)

The mandate to cut led Lau to emphasize her subjects’ contradictions, even (or especially) as they complicate the political goals outlined in the film’s opening. No figure in the film embodies these contradictions more fully than Vickz, the subject whose decision to join a gang and pursue rap seems, more than anything else, to be aesthetically motivated: the action of a self-understood artist.

Vickz’s story is the documentary’s most fascinating and daring inclusion for two reasons: he seems to contradict the film’s interest in the working-class origins of gang members, and he leaves the film most vulnerable to accusations of racial appropriation. These two aspects of Vickz’s story are intertwined. The son of a successful small business owner, Vickz was driven to gang life less by economic need, as Eugene and Bizzy were, than by his desire to perform and embody hip-hop. “Personally, when I was growing up, I always liked that kind of gang-type shit,” he says. “Honestly, I just thought it was cool, you know what I mean?” He has felt the artistic urge so deeply and for so long that it might as well be innate. He can’t remember a time when he didn’t speak with his heavy, slang-laden drawl.

In one scene, Vickz has an explosive argument with close friend Joker, a Black gang member; the N-words in this exchange are bleeped out. In the post-premiere Q and A, an audience member asked: “Was cultural appropriation of the African American experience a theme you wanted to explore?” Lau, in her response, emphasized how immigrant parents did not know how to help their children navigate the Black/white framework of their new home. “In a way, they were made to choose sides,” Lau said. “[Vickz is] trying to create a sense of a unique identity that’s between his Korean roots and who he wants [to be], which is raised in Atlanta […] This is his crew and his friends.”

Indeed, Vickz stays true to his self-presentation throughout. Much of A-Town Boyz follows the arc of Vickz’s and Bizzy’s rap careers, which stall when they’re arrested for a gang-related shooting and are sentenced to two years in jail—precious time that we know they can’t afford to waste. In one of the last interviews of the film, Bizzy explains that in prison, with time to read and think about the future he wants, he has found God and plans to steer his siblings away from drugs and gangs. He stayed close to other Asian inmates, smoking and eating with them as a unit. Bizzy ultimately quits rapping to become an auto mechanic.

Vickz, on the other hand, boasts of his time in lockup, at a different prison. “I was at a turnt-up gangland. You go to sleep with your knife, shower with your knife,” he says. “I was running shit. I was making stupid money […] A cellphone [there] goes for $1,000.” While Bizzy leaves jail as the living embodiment of a classic prison conversion narrative, Vickz finishes his sentence with a torso covered in tattoos he got on the cheap from fellow inmates, his body literally exhibiting his resolve to continue being a gangsta. Multiple photos from prison show Vickz posing chummily with his associates, their faces blurred out but unmistakably Black.

For anyone who might accuse Vickz of being delusional about his identity or, worse, being a poser, Vickz’s ambiguous racial position comes to a head in jail. He possesses social awareness that Black and Hispanic people are locked up at disproportionate rates, and he’s also forced to acknowledge his racial isolation as an Asian. “In the prison system, you don’t see too many Asians,” he observes. “You don’t see too many, so [other inmates] don’t just hate you […] I really think they just think we a joke.” It’s this same alienation as an Asian American that makes it unlikely—as he acknowledges outright—for him to find great success as a rapper in the United States, no matter his talent. He recognizes that he didn’t always speak and dress in a way that associates him with gang life, but he cannot pinpoint the moment at which this began: “I don’t even know when I started talking like this.”

And yet, what would be the authentic way for him to speak as a Korean American born in New Orleans and raised in the Southside of Atlanta? The documentary offers Vickz as he is: a rapper who drew sizable mixed-race audiences in a diverse city, an Asian American prisoner living and communing with Black inmates, a man who has decided that whatever life he pursues in the future, rap career or otherwise, will have to accommodate all his visible tattoos.


A-Town Boyz’s most affecting moment comes near the end of the film: an interview with Vickz’s father, Hong, a stockbroker-in-Korea-turned-janitor-in-the-US who has built a comfortable life for himself as the owner of a cleaning business. Hong’s final interview, interspersed with Vickz’s comeback concert, is wisely presented without commentary. Vickz and his crew enter a room inside a strip mall restaurant, a windowless space with white walls and long plastic tables. Vickz must cajole the audience to move closer to him—“Ey look, if everybody could come to the front now real quick, man, real quick, come to the front!” The venue is a far cry from the kind he performed in before his prison term. But when he starts rapping “Mean Mug,” an old song, the crowd starts jumping to his beats.

In the next scene, Hong is interviewed in front of the small buffet restaurant he bought for Vickz but now runs alone. “Looking back,” he says, “I have no regrets. Life is a journey. […] There have been bad times and good times. Even now, I feel we are on a path to success. Every step of the way.” Vickz’s concert is shown once again, now in an extreme long shot, the wide gap between the camera and the people revealing just how small the dancing crowd is.

Whether Vickz is in fact fulfilling his father’s hopes for “a path to success” is left open to interpretation. On the one hand, inserting Hong’s optimism in the sequence of Vickz’s nearly empty show can seem like a quietly skeptical, ironic gesture on Lau’s part. On the other hand, if we really take the subjects at their word, who are we to reject Hong’s belief in his family’s success? Father and son are committed to two different versions, at times irreconcilable, of what it means to make it in America—financial well-being versus the individual pursuit of dreams.

As I watched Vickz abandon Hong’s offering of hope for the future—a legitimate family-run venture—I found myself empathizing with Hong, feeling the ache he refuses to show. I was certain that, privately, he was devastated by his son’s refusal. I was moved by the sacrificing parent and frustrated by the child who seemed to ignore the sacrifice. Of course, my empathy says as much about me as it does about Vickz and Hong. In Vickz’s story, I recognize my only sibling. In Hong’s life, I recognize my parents and the parents of the other kids I grew up with, immigrants for whom 10- to 20-hour workdays in the US didn’t pan out as expected, people who then desperately look toward their children’s success to psychically compensate for their lifetime of toil.

For this reason, it’s difficult for many second-generation Asians in the United States to fully reject the model minority template, even as we’re suffocated by it, even as we know that it’s often used to justify policies that hurt other racial groups. Being a model minority means prioritizing the struggling immigrant parent over the needs of the oft-undersupported child. It means choosing our parents over ourselves.

Over time, though, I have come to see Vickz’s decision differently. In quitting the restaurant and refusing the money his father has earned through a life of manual labor, Vickz rejects the path of the small business owner, the house in the mostly white suburb, and the established Asian American success narrative. He also disavows the role of the dutiful, indebted child of immigrants. He chooses not to be an assimilated model minority.

Instead, Vickz chooses his art. He chooses that other facet of the American dream, the one that nourishes the American soul and can’t entirely be guaranteed by money alone.

LARB Contributor

Ellen Song’s writing has also appeared in American Literary History and Inside Higher Ed. She works in educational media in New York City.


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