Eric Byler’s education in issues of love, sex and race began when he arrived as a freshman at Wesleyan University in 1990. The son of a white father and Chinese American mother, Byler had been used to living in a majority culture while growing up in Hawaii. But he soon realized that on the mainland, race relations didn’t follow an island route. As he puts it, “I’m sitting in a gigantic [classroom] with all these people. And they’re talking about this stereotype that Asian men have small dicks. I’m like, where the hell have I landed? Why did I come here if that’s what everybody thinks? This is horrible!”
That initial confrontation with popular U.S. perceptions of Asian American sexuality led him to develop Charlotte Sometimes. His feature debut, the movie examines the shifting desires of four 20-something Asian Americans. It was nominated in 2003 for two Spirit Awards, the indie film world’s Oscar equivalent—Best Film made for under $500,000, and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Jacqueline Kim, who plays Darcy.
Byler’s success comes alongside that of friend and colleague Justin Lin, whose Better Luck Tomorrow is the other big Asian American feature this spring. Both directors are helping to bring Asian American stories and perspectives to mainstream audiences after decades of neglect and disinterest. In fact, Byler’s next film is an adaptation of Shawn Wong’s novel, American Knees, which also looks at sex, love, and relationships within Asian America. PopMatters spoke with Byler during the 2003 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where Charlotte Sometimes screened.PopMatters:
Charlotte Sometimes tackles a topic that you almost never see in movies: Asian American sexuality. What got you interested in exploring this theme?Eric Byler:
[When I moved here from Hawaii], I noticed the way that Asian people are raised here. Girls have this, well, you know, the whole exotification thing. But the way it actually affects a girl growing up is that mainstream society is saying, “We want you because you’re pretty,” or “We want you because you’re sexy.” The girl misinterprets this as acceptance, and she believes that the more sexual she is, the more she’ll be accepted. Then you have Asian boys growing up in a climate where their sexuality is somehow unwelcome or ugly. And so the less sexual they are, the more accepted they’ll be.PM:
How did you want to play this out in the film?EB:
The theme of this story is: what does this boy [Michael]—who’s told that his sexuality needs to be repressed in order to be accepted in mainstream society—have to say to this girl [Lori], who’s grown up thinking that her sexuality needs to be exaggerated in order to be accepted? What do these two people have to say to each other as adults?PM:
The theme of longing is key in the film, the agony of unrequited love. What about that theme attracts you to it?EB:
Well, I think there are enough movies about The-Day-I-Met-The-One-I’ll-Always-Be-With.PM:
Meg Ryan films.EB:
Yeah. I’d say 90% of them end with the idea that these two people who you’ve spent 90 minutes invested with have found love. And really, when love is the issue, a lot of people feel like that’s the only point. The only reason why we’re out here is to meet the one and only. But what’s happening to all the other relationships before you meet the one and only? What happens to people who never do meet that person? And what happens to people who met that person when they were too young to know what to do and they lost that person, and they live the rest of their lives as an aftermath?
There are movies that do that. Maybe they’re not made here in America, or if they were, maybe they were 20-25 years ago. But there were movies that I saw, that I really liked: Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces. These people are not heroes who meet and fall in love to beautiful music, who have a little tiff that gives you some drama in the beginning of the third act, but then they find each other, in front of everyone, and the man confesses his love and then woman says, “You had me at hello.” By the way, I thought Jerry Maguire was shaping up to be a wonderful movie until that point.
There are enough movies like that, especially in America. So why not have one guy in the United States making anti-romances instead of romances? I mean, if I had to make those romances, I could, but I would have to be paid a lot of money. I don’t think I could find the inspiration to kill myself for two years to make a movie that’s just like everybody else’s movie.PM:
So, you like the anti-romance romances.EB:
I do. Instead of “Whoa! I wish I could be at the top of the Empire State building kissing that girl!” I like movies where I say “Holy fuck! That is so true! I can’t believe they discovered something that real on screen and they’re selling it to me as if these people are real people. That’s what impresses me.PM:
You like dealing with this idea of painful truths, which makes me think of how self-conscious Woody Allen is in his films, with regard to love and romance and the impossibility of it all. Do you think you’re as deliberate in wanting to push the audience’s buttons by challenging their assumptions?EB:
Woody Allen’s a genius on a level that I’ll never be a genius. He’s got all these genius ideas, and everything he does in his movies is designed to get that genius from his head into your head. Everything he tells his actors, everything he writes for his actors, he has voiceovers, any trick at all to get his genius conveyed to the audience.
I don’t consider myself that kind of genius. I find genius in humanity, and I present it to you the way it exists in humanity, without any artist’s or author’s bend. I really try to disguise myself. The last thing I would want to do is end the movie with “Oh, okay, I get it. Eric Byler wants me to feel happy,” or “Eric Byler wants me to feel sad.” I want them to forget that somebody wrote this, I want them to forget that somebody directed it and think about the characters and believe in the characters.PM:
Of course, we know everyone has sex. But we’re not used to seeing Asian bodies enjoying sex, expressing sexuality that way. Was that something you were trying to push as well?EB:
I’m pleased that that is the result. But again, it’s a deconstruction after the fact, of a movie that’s deeply personal. The women I’ve known like sex a lot. So, I’m just writing a story about the lives of the people I’ve known, or the lives that I’ve led. The people I’ve been or the people I’ve known. But yeah, once again, none of it was to do anything but be honest and real. Forget the stereotypes, ignore what everybody thinks, and just be honest and real. That’s really the only way for me to approach art.PM:
I hear you, but there’s a hundred ways to film a lovemaking scene. You have to be conscious, to some degree, in terms of “I could shoot it this way,” or “I could shoot it some other way.”EB:
One of the reasons that the sex is hard-edged, or whatever, is that I didn’t want to pull any punches. A lot of it is about this Asian guy [Michael] who’s dealing with his feelings of rage, insecurity, and betrayal, because the Asian girl [Lori] he thinks should be his is dating someone [Justin] who’s not entirely Asian, who’s half Asian, who looks very Anglo. Or closer to Anglo. What’s the truth? The truth is that those Asian girls who you see walking down the street with white guys that bugs you so much, they go home and they have sex. It’s not just that they have coffee and it’s not just that they go to bars or whatever, they go home and have sex. And if you really want to deal with how you feel about it—and I want you to deal with it in the most personal way—then watch this movie and decide where you stand.PM:
I understand you’ve had some people walk out of the film because they thought you were perpetuating the expectation that the white guy—or in this case, the half-white guy—gets the Asian girl.EB:
The only Asian people who are upset by this movie that I’ve met [have been] male Asian filmmakers. It was because they have a political agenda that justifies their artistic inspiration. They need to dismiss or somehow debunk anything that diverges from that agenda. Their problem is “Well, there’s so many movies out there that show the Asian guys who aren’t getting the girl, and now you’ve made another one. We finally get a chance to tell our own love story, and you’re making it worse! It’s the same shit! Why don’t you have Asian Superman having sex with eight girls at a time? That would do something to dispel these stereotypes. That’s what my art is, why isn’t that your art?” What’s the answer to that? Well, my art is ultimately inspired by something more profound than your political agenda. If that’s your political agenda, I wouldn’t say make a movie. I’d say write an essay.PM:
Do you think Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow coming out at the same time helps or hinders you?EB:
I think it helps. That’s one of the reasons why we’re timing it within 2-3 weeks of his release. For one thing, MTV is spending millions of dollars to get audiences out. If they’re ever going to come out, they’re gonna come out for Justin’s film. So, they’re gonna have Asian American film in their blood and they’re gonna want more.PM:
When people compare Charlotte Sometimes to sex, lies & videotape, are you flattered or do feel like it’s even relevant?EB:
It’s definitely relevant, because sex, lies & videotape was a watershed for American independent cinema. It’s a valid comparison, because it, like Charlotte Sometimes, begins with an unfair love triangle that’s transformed by an enigmatic stranger. I wish somebody would write about another movie in comparison, even though stylistically, there’s no comparison really, and that movie is [Spike Lee’s] She’s Gotta Have It. Because She’s Gotta Have It transforms something else that I’m a little more specifically interested in. It transformed the way that African Americans are portrayed in mainstream media.
It’s probably the least political of Spike Lee’s movies, and the most honest, because they’re just people. And there’s nothing really about “black” or politics or any of the stuff he would characterize the next three or four films. But once he got the podium, he took advantage, and I’m glad. There are three films that I think in their own ways are watersheds. If Asian America were ready, or if it is ready, Charlotte Sometimes can be that watershed for us, or the combination of these films that have all come out this year, can be that watershed for us. The question really is, did we make the films too soon?PM:
Too soon for mainstream America or too soon for Asian America?EB:
For both. Because I don’t think we have the same stature in 2003 or the same visibility in American society that African Americans had in ‘86.PM:
Sure, and we’re not going to get to that point, from a demographic point of view, for decades. But what are you gonna do, wait 20 years to make a film? No.EB:
I know, I’ll just keep making Charlotte Sometimes over and over and over [laughs].
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/byler-eric-030508/