When we talk about what it means to “see yourself onscreen,” the assumption is usually that it’s a good thing when some aspect of your lived experience is reflected back at you by movies and television. But that doesn’t describe the acute embarrassment I felt — alongside reluctant recognition — while watching one particular scene in Boogie. In it, the film’s eponymous main character watches a tape of a 30-year-old tennis match with his dad (Perry Yung), a recording of what Mr. Chin declares “the greatest moment in Asian American history”: 17-year-old Michael Chang winning the 1989 French Open. Boogie — who was born Alfred Chin but prefers going by what he calls his “stripper name” — is a high-school senior and basketball star who was still over a decade from being born at the time of Chang’s momentous win, and he frustratedly tries to argue that surely the years since have had something to offer. What about Yao Ming carrying the flag at the Olympics? Not American, his dad points out. That girl who designed the Vietnam War memorial? Not bad for Maya Lin, but that was still nothing on becoming the youngest male player in history to win a Grand Slam. And, for all their shared obsession with basketball, the Chins junior and senior are united in scorn for Jeremy Lin, who, as Mr. Chin sniffs, “gave the credit to Jesus.”
Boogie is the directorial debut of restaurateur and TV personality Eddie Huang, whose 2013 memoir became the basis of Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom that he subsequently disavowed for sanitizing the darker aspects of his childhood. This film, about the NBA dreams and domestic struggles of a Taiwanese American Queens teenager, is fiction, but it’s also clearly his attempt to make something grittier than FOB and more true to his perspective. (Huang also cast himself in Boogie as the fast-talking Uncle Jackie, who shows up on occasion to offer advice or dire news about Mr. Chin’s business dealings.) The rebellious main character, played by first-timer Taylor Takahashi, is Huang’s revenge on the Jeremy Lins of the world — with his tattoos, his swagger, and the way he kicks off his courtship of Black classmate Eleanor (Taylour Paige) by staring at her at the gym and then telling her, “You got a pretty vagina.” Somehow this works out for him, maybe because Takahashi — a 28-year-old Japanese American who met Huang through a recreational basketball league — exudes ease onscreen, even if it’s obvious he left his teens behind him a while ago. Boogie is both a vehicle for Huang’s frustrations about the stranglehold of model minority stereotypes and a representation of his fantasy of an Asian American lead — one who fucks (albeit with a burst of late-breaking self-doubt about his dick size) and who plays ball well enough to get the attention of colleges, though not scholarship offers. The pressure is on Boogie because his family can’t afford to pay for school otherwise. As his mom’s (Pamelyn Chee) fretting makes clear, they can’t even afford to pay their own household bills.
Both Huang and I are children of the ’80s, closer in age to Boogie’s dad than we are to Boogie himself. As a half-Chinese kid growing up in the Bay Area suburbs, I knew nothing about tennis but kept tabs on Michael Chang anyway, the way I did (and still do) have a running awareness of every mixed Asian actor in the business. What’s at the heart of this impulse isn’t just that desire to see yourself, but a longing for secondhand hipness, for clout — a yearning that may be juvenile, but one that’s nevertheless powerful. It’s powerful enough in Huang that he never really grew out of it. To watch Boogie is to wonder if, for Huang, the hardest part of the Asian American experience is being perceived as uncool. Perhaps that’s why he allows Mr. Chin to bulldoze over whatever perspective the film’s Gen-Z protagonist might have: Huang seems to hold humiliatingly fast to his own formative memories of Chang’s triumph on a global stage while ignoring the fact that Chang has less in common with Boogie than he does with Jeremy Lin, who Boogie dismissively describes as “more model-minority Jesus freak than he is Asian.” There is a maddeningly unconsidered quality to Boogie’s emotions about Asian American masculinity, and never more so than in the film’s fraught relationship with Blackness.
Boogie is set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, but it’s Blackness against which the main character feels the need to measure himself. In theory, the dramatic tension in the story has to do with Boogie getting a scholarship, but in practice, it’s displaced onto whether Boogie can prove himself by beating the best player in the city, whose name is Monk, and who’s played by Pop Smoke in the late rapper’s first and only acting role. It’s not a part that involves much dialogue because Monk serves more as a symbol of Boogie’s (and Huang’s) insecurities than a character. Boogie stares Monk down through the chain-link fence surrounding the court on which Monk reigns supreme and almost destroys his budding relationship with Eleanor after finding out that Monk was her previous sexual partner. If Boogie has contempt for those it sees as aspiring toward white adjacency, it regards Blackness with a roiling mixture of covetousness and resentment. In the same way that Boogie and his father agree that beating Monk is somehow the solution to the fact that “no one believes in an Asian basketball player,” Boogie feels the need to stress to Eleanor that she will never understand what it’s like to have parents hold their sacrifices over your head. She has to remind him that she contends with her own racial trauma. It’s not a scene about seeking common ground; it’s a one-directional demand for acknowledgement of pain.
And certainly, especially in this moment of surging violence against Asians and Asian Americans, there’s something understandable about that desire to be seen and to have experiences of bigotry, marginalization, and immigrant struggles recognized. It’s too bad Boogie is so limited in its conception of what that pain entails that its main character’s anguish tends to veer more toward self-pity than anything broader. In Boogie’s defining speech, its protagonist bemoans the lack of imagination going into beef and broccoli, a classic Chinese American takeout dish that, as he sees it, Italians and Greeks and other cultures all have their own variations on. Beef and broccoli has sustained neighborhoods, Boogie allows, but it amounts to another means of discounting his community. “Chinese people could be so much more if this country didn’t reduce us down to beef and broccoli,” he concludes, a line that reads as astoundingly corny as it is sincerely meant.
Boogie may be centered on a teenager who was born in the 2000s, but its ideas about Asian American identity and being Chinese in America are vague, squarely from a few decades before, and don’t feel like they’ve undergone much examination in the time that’s passed since. Whatever desire to get real that the film was born out of, it ultimately feels like a sign that it’s time to do some growing up.