Eddie Huang Has Moved Beyond Playing in the Representation Sandbox (Exclusive)
By John Boone
"I just want to say to all my comments, it's not to, like, be difficult or hard on Asian America," says Eddie Huang in the final moments of our conversation. The disclaimer is unanticipated if completely unnecessary, considering Huang, a restaurateur-turned-memoirist-turned-culture critic-turned-filmmaker, has been outspoken about what's important to him his entire career, but never solely to provoke.
Sure, his reaction to Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC series inspired by his memoir about growing up the child of Taiwanese immigrants, caused its fair share of hubbub. When it premiered in 2015, the show was groundbreaking -- the first Asian American sitcom on network television in more than 20 years -- and Huang disavowed it. But nothing he said about it was patently unfair.
Fresh Off the Boat wasn't true to his experience -- a fair-enough argument from any memoirist whose work has been adapted -- but the bigger issue was it wasn't authentic to the experience. ("I don't think it is helping us to perpetuate an artificial representation of Asian American lives and we should address it," he tweeted at the time.) Huang could appreciate it as the milestone of representation it was, but why settle only for being represented?
"The standard that society has and the things people ask about are below what I'm doing, to be honest," he tells ET by Zoom from his place in L.A. "I kicked down the door for Asian America. I got us on television. The sandbox other people are mentally playing in, I've left."
Being included was always just the beginning. In 2021, as representation still dominates the cultural conversation and Hollywood continues to tick off the first of this and the first of that, Huang is ready to move on to the next topic. "I'm on to intersectionality," he says. "I'm onto seeing the full tapestry."
For Huang, Boogie is that tapestry in all its glory. On the cusp of turning 40, he's finally making his feature writing and directorial debut with the story of Alfred "Boogie" Chin, a high school basketball player from Queens who dreams of playing in the NBA. The title comes from Huang's own days playing ball in Brooklyn, when a color commentator would remark of a particularly brutal breakaway, "Oh, he just boogied on that motherf**ker!'"
The movie is less about basketball, though, and more so a coming-of-age drama about culture, expectations and generational trauma. "I think that Boogie does something very different than the films that have come before that are just about representation. We're having very difficult conversations in this film," Huang says.
Newcomer Taylor Takahashi, an all-time leading scorer at his own high school, plays the lead, with Perry Yung as his idealistic, recently paroled father and Pamelyn Chee as his constant but contemptuous mother. (Huang co-stars as Boogie's uncle, Jackie.) In the Chins, Huang explores legacy and the immigrant and first-generation experience through his own unique perspective. Still, that's only half the tapestry.
"I don't get excited, like, 'Oh! All Asian cast!' I'm like, 'Well, where the hell is the rest of America in your film?" Huang explains. "I think it's more powerful when you can have Asian leads as full, complex human beings within the actual context of the America that we live in. If I have to create an artificial world for an all-Asian cast and to represent, then is that story real?"
He points to a scene between Boogie and his girlfriend, Eleanor (Taylour Paige), who's Black, in which Boogie is expressing his struggle as an Asian American. "I owe, like, 5,000 years of f**king Chinese history," he laments in the film. "You don't understand, your parents don't hold it over your head that they sacrificed everything to give you this opportunity in America."
"He expresses that struggle almost in a silo where he can't see outside of himself, and he feels that he probably has the most difficult road," Huang explains.
Eleanor responds, "Not the same, but [do] you know how f**king hard it was for me to find out where I come from? My history was f**king ripped from me. I was cut off from my ancestors. You're not the only one who deals with these problems."
"She reminds him that Asian American immigrants, we, for the most part, chose to come here. Our parents made a choice to come here. Most Black Americans were ripped from their continent and forced to come here and forced into slavery," Huang continues. "And so, we're starting from different points and it doesn't mean one person is better than the other, but it's important to have perspective that we're all in this together, and it may ease our pain to have empathy for others and understand others. And I genuinely believe that."
I think that my voice deserves a bigger film.
Focus Features, the studio behind Boogie, signed on for Huang himself, so he was able to make his film largely on his terms. Even still, he found himself forced to make certain compromises. I ask about another scene, in which Boogie meets a manager, Melvin (Mike Moh), and refers to him in Chinese as "Uncle," a common colloquialism in many cultures for any elder figure. The subtitle clarifies "Uncle (no relation)." It's the film doing extra work to explain itself to an outside audience.
"It frustrated me at first that I had to explain it, but then I was like, it's fine. It looks a little ugly in the subtitles, but it's fine," Huang says. Which isn't to say he didn't fight. Huang would write full essays in response to notes about subtitles and censoring music, arguing his various cases. "At the end of the day, I would be a really crappy and egotistical director if I didn't understand and acquiesce to that. Because it's a very simple thing I can do to welcome in another audience -- even if it's a white audience."
That was part of a bigger epiphany Huang had on the project. When he turned in his director's cut to Focus, chairman Peter Kujawski responded, "I see a Ford v Ferrari in here." "I was like, 'What are you f**king talking about, Ford v Ferrari?'" Huang laughs. "I was like, 'The only car in this movie is a goddamn town car!'" Kujawski explained that he saw a more mainstream film within Huang's cut. "Oh my gosh, we argued for months, but I will tip my hat, because I'm a guy that I like to admit when I'm wrong. There was a bigger film in there."
Only looking back can Huang see that "there was a part of me that was worried if a mainstream audience would want to hear all the small, specific and intimate things I had to say," he admits. Subconsciously, he'd made his own film smaller "so that it wouldn't be judged by this dominant cultural mainstream lens." He'd reasoned at the time that he would be content if it made back its money and eventually wound up on Criterion.
"But I think that my voice deserves a bigger film," he says. "And I think this is a film that more people are going to see themselves in, while not giving up authenticity and specificity. We just put bumpers on a few scenes to help you understand it, and it went a long way. Those were big compromises, but I'm very happy I made them."
It's important for Huang to point out that he never felt at a loss for Asian role models. He watched the films of Ang Lee, Taiwanese New Wave and Fifth Generation Chinese cinema. "These were films that I could see myself in," he says. Still, he wanted more Asian American stories. He sees filmmakers like Justin Chon (Gook) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell) not only fulfilling that wish but doing so in a way that moves beyond representation and into authenticity, specificity and truth. "That we are not just yellow faces repeating white narratives."
Which is to say, he's ready to move beyond Fresh Off the Boat.
"This is a very 'I told you so' moment for me," Huang puts it matter-of-factly. "Because there were many people, even in the Asian community, that supported me and were like, 'This [show] isn't as good as Fresh Off the Boat the book. It's not talking about the pain and struggle in the way Eddie did, and this show feels hollow.' But then there are a lot of older Asian Americans, it's just a different generation and more of a model minority mindset that were like, 'Be quiet, don't hurt Asian business. We just want to see success.'"
"And it really upset me," he continues. "Because it was almost like they accepted or assumed that we couldn't do better, that we couldn't have a story that not only had representation, but that the representation was complex and layered and full of humanity, that accurately reflected our identities and the pain and struggle that we go through. Boogie is my testament to the belief that we can."
In its time, Fresh Off the Boat couldn't -- or wouldn't -- get made in the way Huang thought it should. As for what has or hasn't changed since then, I ask him, do you think you could get the series made today in the way you think it should?
"Yeah. I mean, I would love in 10 years to remake Fresh Off the Boat," he replies. "That would be amazing. It would be something like Kids meets My So-Called Life, you know what I mean? Because those were shows that I always really liked. But, yeah, man, I'm excited for that. I feel like Asian Americans, we're doing our thing right now, and we're stepping out from this ice age where it was like, 'Yo, we're just happy to be here.'"
Huang leans back in his chair, staring off for a second, then adds, "I just want to say to all my comments, it's not to, like, be difficult or hard on Asian America. It's just, I'm cheering for us. I'm pushing. And I just want us to expect more for ourselves."