Terry Hu stars in Erica Eng's 'Americanized.' (Courtesy of Erica Eng. Director of photography: Drew Daniels.)
High school. Whether you loved it or hated it, you’ll never forget those four years. Cue the not-so-cute braces, growing body parts and beginner booze. Hpnotiq, I’m looking at you.
While classic films like The Breakfast Club, Love & Basketball and Clueless fixated on jocks, popular kids, nerds and misfits, the high school experience in a city as dynamic as Oakland is a universe of its own.
Writer and director Erica Eng brings us back to those formative years in her 2021 short film Americanized, shot at her old stomping grounds at Skyline High School in The Town.
The film, which screens on May 22 at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater as part of CAAMFest, starts off with a cornrowed basketball player (also named Eng) slappin’ Zion I’s “The Bay,” a track the Oakland-bred director listened to on repeat in college.
Having been benched most of the season, the protagonist (played by Terry Hu) must fight hard to prove that, even as a newbie, she deserves her shot on the court. And like Eng in real life, the main character grapples with her identity and fitting in.
Looking back at her teenage years, Eng says, “I felt very Bay Area-culture embedded. I felt proud of coming from the city, and just being a part of the Bay.” The writer-director graduated high school in the early 2000s, when the hyphy movement was taking off thanks to now-iconic tracks like Mac Dre’s “Thizzle Dance.”
If you’re from the Bay, an unwritten code exists. It’s like, if you know, you know. “The music, the style, like the hip-hop culture, it was all to show how the main character identified with American culture the most,” Eng says.
Off the court, it’s another battle in the 17-minute narrative. Skyline’s Asian clique doesn’t see eye to eye with the main character and deems her too “Americanized.” “Others might feel like she doesn’t know where she comes from,” Eng explains. “And that could also be true too.”
The film explores Eng’s Chinese heritage when we see the protagonist’s home life and her affectionate relationship with her grandmother. However, the fictional Eng pushes her family aside. Like most teenagers, she wants to find acceptance with the kids at school instead.
“My understanding of my identity didn’t just happen in high school,” Eng reflects. “It’s been something I’ve always been kind of working through until my late 20s. So, I think some of the realizations I’ve had in my life I tried to condense into the day in the life of a girl.”
Societal norms create all-or-nothing depictions of identity, but Americanized refuses to put its main character in a box. “I know people look at it like, ‘Oh, the only Asian on the team,’ and I was. But it’s not about race on the team. And if people were to watch the film carefully, they never talked about race,” Eng explains. “The end of the film really talks about how she’s a bad player. And that to me was really important that people understood that nuance.”
As a director, Eng has created commercials for Netflix, Verizon, McAfee and Bank of America as well as numerous music videos, such as D Smoke’s “Fighter” and J.Lately’s “Papayas & Blunt Smoke.”
Americanized is the first short film Eng wrote and directed herself. It’s taken home 16 awards, including Best Dramatic Short and Audience Choice Award at Cinequest Film & VR Festival and the Young Cineastes Award at Palm Springs International ShortFest.
On the big screen, we get a feel of Eng’s cinematic style, alongside that of Drew Daniels, the director of photography. The film’s visual appeal comes from a mix of handheld, point-of-view tracking and close-up shots that set viewers right in the center of it all–almost like you’re a friend tagging along.
Recently, Eng was chosen for Disney’s Launchpad Shorts Incubator program, SHOOT Magazine’s New Directors Showcase and Commercial Directors Diversity Program. Eng’s next short, titled Off Fairfax, will premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in June.
Americanized is a story about learning who you are and accepting the parts that you or others may view as not enough. “We’re all so similar,” Eng says. “We’re all the same, but we all feel like we’re so isolated when we’re young.”
Americanized is part of CAAMFest’s Homegrown Shorts program alongside My Name is Lai (directed by Lucy Saephan), Crashing Wheels on Concrete (directed by So Young Shelly Yo), Love & Corona (directed by Nicole Maxali) and Hannah’s Biography (directed by Patricia Lee). The screening takes place on May 22 at 2pm at New Parkway Theater.
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