Eunice Lau is, in her words, “searching to connect.” The filmmaker seeks stories across communities that convey universal truths about immigrant experience, intergenerational relationships, and what the stories of others can teach us about ourselves.
This search took her on a years-long journey to tell the story of A-Town Boyz, streaming now on Amazon and Tubi. Following the stories of aspiring rappers Vickz (Harrison Kim) and Bizzy (Jamy Long), and gang leader Eugene Chung, Lau’s documentary explores the challenges that Asian American men face in fighting for their dignity and navigating generational trauma, and gives the space for each man’s story to unfold on its own terms.
Lau is also in the process of creating a fictionalized A-Town Boyz series, in addition to two other stories exploring similar thematic elements from different perspectives. She’s premiering a film about a Jewish American woman who fought back against a neo-Nazi-led troll storm, and is developing a story about a Black climate activist expanding composting in New York City.
I sat down with Lau to discuss family and masculinity in A-Town Boyz, and how the camera heals.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Quin Nelson: How did you come to the story of A-Town Boyz?
Eunice Lau: I came to the United States about 15 years ago to do my MFA in film directing and production at NYU. And it was [during that time] that I collaborated with a Korean American actress in New York.
We became good friends, and she told me about her life growing up in Atlanta. And I was so fascinated with it. I said, “Can I interview this gang leader and your friends?” That's how I met Harrison and Eugene. And, through Harrison, I met Bizzy, or Jamy Long.
I didn’t grow up in the South, and I grew up very middle class. My parents were teachers. And so initially, I had that angle of like, “I wonder what it takes to be an aspiring rap artist? And why would they choose something that’s not your usual route in life?” And I was also asking the question of why they were drawn to being in a gang.
There may be that cool element, but you wouldn’t usually think that an Asian kid would be allowed to deviate from the path we are prescribed, right? So I was curious to find out some of these answers. And in the process of that, I discovered how a lot of them suffered from a lot of bullying and unacknowledged trauma and pain.
QN: Years pass in this film, and you’ve built relationships with the subject. How do you navigate being honest in the film and being true to those relationships?
EL: I’ve never chosen easy subjects to portray or to try and understand because at the end of the day, I am trying to find some answers to what makes us human or to understand the human condition. In the earlier part of my career, I was a journalist, and I've interviewed people who are accused of genocide, like what happened in Cambodia. One-third of the population were killed as a result of war and revolution. And I actually sat across the table and spent many hours with this man who was known as Brother Number Two, one of the people most responsible for the genocide. How do you sit there and not think about, you know, what he has done, how many millions of people he has killed or is responsible for, and still try to find answers as to why he did what he did? And I think that taught me a lot about how I have to leave my judgment at the door.
And it doesn't mean that we don't acknowledge what he did. But first of all, we need to hear his side of the story. Because without understanding, there's just no way we can really understand how things unravel, right?
With A-Town Boyz we could just approach [these people] as a gangster, a bad person, or just judge them for the bad choices in life that they made. But then we could never really understand how they got there to understand what wounds led them to that point. So building up that trust to let them feel safe to tell their story without you trying to insert your judgment or your values is really important, because then we can really understand the pains that they went through, that led them to being where they are.
QN: In the film, we see the parents reflecting on their relationships with their sons, and watch these sons become parents as well. How did you see them all navigate family and generational trauma?
EL: I think that I see that in my own parents as well. When I was growing up in Singapore, it was a developing country. You know, you only see it as being very wealthy because of Crazy Rich Asians, but that's a class of people that most of us have no access to. My mom had to do two jobs in order to make it, because the teacher's salary was low. I hardly saw her. Later on, when my brother had a child and she had her first grandchild, she spent so much time with her to relive the motherhood that she kind of missed because we were always in the care of my grandparents.
I saw that same thing in A-Town Boyz as well, when Vickz' dad started to reflect on how he wished he had spent more time with his son. At that point in his life when he was working 16, 20 hours, crazy hours, he was hustling so hard that he had no time to reflect on these things and wish he could have done better.
So in retrospect, he can reflect on that. But the thing that I think that Harrison took away was that he didn't want to be that kind of father. He wanted to be more present for his children. And so trying to balance between his desires, his dreams, and being a good father was a constant struggle, and he was very much conscious of it.
And also, sometimes I feel it’s the presence of the camera that makes you question things, you know, whether it has some impact. And I say this because subsequently another film I made in the process of finishing up A-Town Boyz was Accept the Call, shining a light on the Somali-American community in Minnesota.
The filming process helped to heal the fractured relationship between father and son in Accept the Call. It brought them closer together because of the camera being there, seeking answers to these questions. And in the same way, I think perhaps me asking some of these searching questions made Vickz realize how much his dad loved him.
If we do things right with the right intention, the camera can be cathartic in terms of it being a tool to heal. It's almost like a form of therapy.
QN: I'm curious about masculinity portrayed in the film. We're talking largely about boys and men, and you’re exploring what masculinity is in these different communities. What did you learn about masculinity through making these films?
EL: One thing I definitely do realize or observe is how much harder it is for men and boys than it is for the girls and women in immigrant societies to adapt in some ways. I think it is because of how our society conditions the male to feel like it's not manly to express your emotions, so they're not equipped with a lot of outlets to express their confusion and their vulnerability. There's so many of these stereotypes of what a good Asian male is supposed to be, the expectations that are heaped on them, and barriers that are created between them and their emotions—all of that contributed to the toxic masculinity in our culture, our community.
My parents, especially my mother, who's the Asian mom, the “Tiger Mom,” was not happy at all with my career choice of being an artist. But I was able to break the mold more than my brother did, because I'm a girl. While my mom is progressive and forward-thinking, she says at the end of the day that it’s the male who has to take care of the family.
It’s funny you’re asking me this question now, because yesterday I was watching The Brothers Sun. I was just thinking, like, “I'm so happy to see a sexy Asian male in front of the camera.” They're allowed to be funny, they're allowed to be sexy. They're not just stereotypes, you know, of being a nerd. For too long, the Asian male has always just had no personality and been two dimensional.
And I was proud, even though I'm not part of making that show, to see the Asian male being represented in a way that I felt was accurate, more accurate in Hollywood than it’s ever been. I think a lot of that has to do with how we've been fighting for that space to tell authentic stories. Having diversity and representation is so important, but we had to fight for this space.
I think the suffering we endure as women is also what makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others, more patient in waiting for stories to unfold. The ability to listen is what makes us better storytellers.
QN: What has your experience been like as a woman in documentary filmmaking?
EL: It always surprises people to see a woman carrying a camera or being “bossy”—people are not used to that. But I think it's good because it encourages girls to also think that they do not have to take the prescribed path of just getting married and, you know, becoming wives and mothers, even though that's a beautiful thing too. You can also pursue your dreams and have your own desires.
Some characters find it more comforting or easier to talk to me, and I'm able sometimes to ask more probing questions. It’s more palatable or easier for them to tell me the truth. I think it's like how a mother has a way of worming out truths from their sons in a way that a father would find it harder to do.
So I think that helps being a woman, a female filmmaker. But there's also the disadvantage where people think they can disrespect you, and that's something I have to deal with constantly as a woman. But I think the suffering we endure as women is also what makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others, more patient in waiting for stories to unfold. The ability to listen is what makes us better storytellers.
QN: How does filmmaking inspire healing for you, as the one behind the camera?
EL: One of the important lessons I learned from film school, from my amazing professors including Spike Lee, is that in order for us to tell true, good stories, we first have to be honest with ourselves. It starts here.
And I realized that I have to confront some of the things that have hurt me and what has been bothering me and what I’ve been really searching for, understanding and not running away from them, you know?
Then I actually realized that I went in search of that understanding, sometimes not even intentionally. But it comes out later on, and you realize why you’re drawn to a story. That’s the process. It can only be healing If you are willing to open yourself up to being truthful and honest. And that does not come naturally to us because we have been conditioned to hide our true selves because we are told it makes us vulnerable. A large part of what a film director does is working with actors to access their characters’ inner world—their actions, intentions and motivations that are often hidden. Which is why I believe that in order to be a good director, a good storyteller, I must first understand and be honest with myself.
Published on February 1, 2024