Despite spending my undergraduate years in an East Village apartment that was just a few blocks away from Baohaus, I didn’t get acquainted with Eddie Huang through his delicious pork buns. Like many, my introduction to the Asian American chef and TV personality came by way of his highly bingeable Viceland series, Huang’s World.
An unfiltered reflection of Huang’s colorful personality, Huang’s World employs documentary storytelling methods to combine lowbrow, bro-to-bro humor with impromptu, weed-fueled bouts of cultural analysis. In one episode, Huang may be too stoned to ask his nice old Jamaican host any worthwhile questions about her sugarcane plantation. In another, he may be walking down a misty Moscow street saying something deeply profound like, “All of us want to know more about each other and understand where we’re from. But—in that quest—we gotta resist the temptation to allow any single voice to speak for an entire community.”
As far as globetrotting documentarians go, Huang is up there with the likes of Anthony Bourdain. Not just in his understanding of the ambassadorial potential of foreign cuisines, but also in his capacity to bring together different walks of life and make strangers act as close as college roommates.
All of these qualities come through in Huang’s feature film debut, Boogie, about a fiery Chinese American young man’s attempt to make it to the NBA. Along the way, Alfred “Boogie” Chin is supported by his irresponsible, daydreaming father and tactfully discouraged by his responsible, risk averse mother. Where sports stories are concerned, Boogie is and isn’t a traditional underdog narrative. Alfred has plenty of natural talent; the real enemy isn’t his opponent—an imposing Black basketball player named Monk—but his doubts about whether he can escape the stereotype-stranglehold by proving there’s more to him than “beef and broccoli.”
Alfred is played by Taylor Takahashi, Huang’s longtime assistant on previous projects whom he apparently met during some or other recreational b-ball game (the sport is but one of Huang’s many passions that plays center stage in this film, alongside fashion and the interplay between cultures). Though a first-time actor, Takahashi portrays the title character with confidence and authenticity.
Equally compelling is his co-star, the Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke, who was critically injured during a home invasion and passed away at age 20, shortly after filming of Boogie wrapped up. Music magazine XXL has described the rapper as “blessed with a rough, no-nonsense growl,” adding that “like the best villains, he’s not motivated by pure malice. Behind each threat, there’s a cocky, mischievous grin.” Those who have seen Huang’s movie will know that Pop Smoke imbued Monk with precisely that kind of energy, giving depth and weight to what might have otherwise been a predictably straightforward on-court, off-court rivalry.
Being somebody’s first, Boogie is not without its hiccups. Since the film’s release, various critics have called its storyline “tedious” and described the ideas underneath as immature. Whether Huang did his Asian American audience justice is not my place to say, so I won’t. While plot points like Boogie discovering his girlfriend Eleanor used to date Monk moments before his big match strike me as cringy and a wee bit cliché, I am also painfully aware of the fact that real-life teenage drama often is just that. If there’s a reviewer out there who can look me in the eye and tell me their teenage years didn’t, in some ways, feel like a rough first draft, I’ll hear their beef with Boogie.
This film is no Shakespearean play (though, like Huang himself, its script can certainly be poetic at times), but then again: it doesn’t need to be. What matters is that Boogie is a story that comes straight from the heart of its creator, a person who does not change to procure the meaningless favor of the filmmaking establishment or to rake in that extra bit of cash from the movie-going public.
This helps explain why Huang cut ties with ABC when the corporation turned his heartfelt autobiography Fresh off the Boat into an impersonal, mass-marketable sitcom that could attract the audiences of Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. Compared to that show, Boogie undoubtedly feels like the sort of movie Huang always wanted to make. That’s why I enjoyed watching it, and why I hope he will be able to make more in the future.