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My Own Private Asian-American Film

The Secret Subversiveness of Gleaming the Cube

by Neelanjana Banerjee
illustration by Nina Bays

MY COLLECTION of VHS tapes were once my prized possession, built up during long, sweaty summers in Dayton, Ohio when I was a pre-teen. I kept them on a special white particle-board shelf in my closet, carefully labeling each one with a fine-point sharpie. It was an odd collection of films and TV moments, oftentimes prompted by the SC (sexual content) or SSC (strong sexual content) labels in the HBO guide: a tape full of Janet Jackson videos, the oddly-disturbing teen prostitute/serial killer movie Streets, starring Christina Applegate, or Mickey Rourke’s Wild Orchid.

But I did have a running theme, and that was Christian Slater flicks. Yes, Christian Slater, with his Jack Nicholson eyebrows and sometimes bad skin, with his spiky, dyed-blond hair and acting technique of sarcasm. Whether he was running from the law in The Legend of Billie Jean, being the baddest boy in school in Heathers, or masturbating on pirate radio in Pump Up the Volume, he stole my heart.

I was an awkward Indian girl who developed early, eking out an existence in a sea of whiteness. My heart had been crushed early on when the pee-wee football quarterback that I had a crush on in 6th grade told me he thought I was pretty, but he wasn’t allowed to date black people. “That’s OK,” I told him, smiling. “I’m not black.” His response was a flippant, “Or whatever you are.” It didn’t sink in right away.

In fact, I rode the bus home excited that my crush thought I was pretty, thinking I would tell him the next day that we had something in common: I wasn’t allowed to date white people. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I was so invisible that people couldn’t even be racist towards me accurately. My parents’ fear of White America corrupting me kept me away from sleepovers and roller-skating parties. In my isolation, the television became my universe, and Christian Slater my saving grace. There was something about him that seemed attainable, an outsider quality I related to. I became mildly obsessed.

At this time, there was no one who even came close to looking like me on television or in films. I’d suffered through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 along with every other Indian kid in America, but besides the brief images of grieving mothers in the village, there weren’t even any Indian women in the film. But then one day I taped the 1989 Slater skateboarding vehicle Gleaming the Cube, looking forward to ogling Christian Slater in his skater gear. Little did I know that it would become the most moving Asian-American film of my young life.

I Am Tina Trac

I didn’t know much about the film the first time I sat down to watch it—just that Slater played a skateboard rat from Southern California. But then it happened. Not even 10 minutes in, we are introduced to Vinh, cynical skater Brian (Slater) Kelly’s adopted Vietnamese brother. Sure, for the first few scenes Vihn is safely ensconced behind his primitive laptop, the perfect foil to Slater’s usual bad-boy image, but then Vinh’s girlfriend Tina Trac (played with passion by Min Luong) shows up at the window of the room the two brothers share. She appears soft and sweet, yet tough, in her ill-fitting, pastel-colored ’80s good-girl clothes. From the first scene, you can see that Slater’s character is unnerved by her, that he notices her there in the window, planting a chaste kiss on his brother’s cheek. As Vinh ducks out the window with Tina, whose father’s gun-running scheme to Vietnam in support of the anti-Communist party will ultimately get Vinh killed, the camera rests on Slater alone in his room. Is he thinking about Tina? my 12-year-old self wondered, a flare of hope and excitement rising in me.

Set in Orange County, the film vaguely involves the huge Vietnamese-American population that settled there after the Vietnam War. General Trac, Tina’s father and Vinh’s boss, runs a Vietnamese video store in a strip mall that is straight out of Westminster’s Little Saigon. Rewatching the film now, I can see that writer Michael Tolkin (who would go on to write screenplays for The Player and Deep Impact) hit on a politically complex plot point in the conflicted General Trac, who fought with the Americans during Vietnam, prospered in America, and wants to continue the good fight against communism. When his world comes crashing down around him, his lovely Vietnamese wife wails from the bed, “You promised me. No more war! It was all over. You said no more war!” Later, before he receives a fatal gunshot wound from the evil white man of the movie, he tells his daughter, “Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done for our Vietnamese nation.”

But all of these politics went over my head at the time. All I knew was that once Slater began his quest to track down Vinh’s killers, he needed an “in,” and that was Tina. Sure, maybe at first he was using her to get to her father—but from the first awkward scene when they sit down over a can of Coke at a high-school cafeteria table and Tina tells him that they have nothing in common, I felt the electric tingles of the chemistry between them. More than that, when Tina says, “Look, I’m going to be honest with you. My father won’t let me see American boys, even as friends,” and Slater responds with a confused look, I was elated. Here was a moment I had lived through, an awkward stare I understood. Forget Ally Sheedy shaking her dandruff onto her fine ink drawings in The Breakfast Club or Molly Ringwald ashamed of the location of her house in Pretty in Pink. This was the teen moment that I knew about. At that moment, Tina Trac was me.

Sure, it’s a little creepy that after Slater “cleans up” at Tina’s nerdy request and pretends to give up skateboarding, she quickly agrees to go out with him, even though her boyfriend has been dead for like a week. But I forgave her because there was something in her conflicted good-little-Asian girl demeanor that I still don’t think has been addressed that much in film—definitely not in mainstream film.

Fuck Laguna Beach

There are moments in Gleaming the Cube that show the writer’s ignorance of the Vietnamese community: Slater looks through the phone book to find the address of thug Bobby Nguyen and finds two listings, when in reality some 20 to 30 percent of these areas were populated by Nguyens at that point in time. In an interview screenwriter Tolkin did in the late ’90s on, he says the impetus for his story was just to write about what he saw: “Gleaming the Cube came from driving around California about 17 years ago and seeing two things. One was driving through Orange County County and seeing scores of Vietnamese teenagers in black leather jackets going into clubs. The other was noticing that skateboarding was coming back.” At least Tolkin noticed, and had the insight to write it down.

Today, over 15 years later, what supporting Asian Americans do you remember from recent teen films? Even on the teenage world of reality television, like Laguna Beach—also set in Orange County—Asian Americans are perhaps even more invisible than they were in the ’80s. Our lives are relegated, with pride, to Asian-American independent films like Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham or the overly earnest Filipino family drama The Debut or the extreme irony of Better Luck Tomorrow. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with these films. I’m excited for a generation of 12-year-olds who can relate to Jesminder’s struggle to balance her identities while being a bad-ass in soccer instead of clinging to the marginal moments that made up my celluloid identity. In fact, last year, Orange County native Le-Van Kiet made a coming-of-age film about displaced Vietnamese American youth, Dust of Life, set around the same time as Gleaming the Cube. In a way, it was a movie about the nameless Vietnamese thugs that populate the pool halls and do General Trac’s dirty work.

But there was something in Tina Trac’s unabashed desire for Slater in the face of her father’s anti-communist agenda and the badly edited skateboarding tricks that was subversive to me. The big risk of this little film was allowing the supporting characters in Gleaming the Cube —besides Tony Hawk—to be Asian American. Sure, IMDB shows that Min Luong (Tina) and Le Tuan (General Trac) didn’t go on to any more roles in Hollywood. The DVD extras barely mention that there are Asian Americans in the film. But back in the long, lonely summer of my 12-year-old life, it made me see myself for the first time.

San Francisco based writer Neelanjana Banerjee is an editor for YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia and Hyphen magazine. She still dreams about Christian Slater sometimes.

Posted in Reverse Angle

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