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Americanized (Film Review): Caught Between Cultures

Americanized is an emotive short film that highlights the internal and external struggle of identity, belonging, and cultural heritage in American high schools.

High schools: a fond memory for most, a place of hell and rebellion for others. It is the place for intellectual growth and the development of creativity, for the pursuit of dreams or the crushing of your self-esteem. In short, high school can make or break you, but the consequences will likely stay with you for a very long time. Erica Eng’s deeply moving short film Americanized highlights a phenomenon that must feel all too familiar for American students with an ethnic background – the fear of being labelled as ‘americanized’ by members of their own community. What should be a safe space to develop and fortify your identity and sense of belonging can often turn into a minefield for students from different cultural backgrounds.

Somewhere in Oakland, California, United States of America in the year 2002, Chinese American student Eng (Terry Hu, A Cure for All Things, Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3), gets ready for her pre-game school day. A member of the school’s female basketball team, she tries hard to get into the close-knit group of African American players that make up the rest of the team. With her cornrows and big hoops, she’s almost indistinguishable from the girls she tries to befriend, to the annoyance of the Asian students. With her slim knowledge of Asian culture and her wish to be part of the African American student group, Eng is visually torn between the person her cultural background tells her to be and the person she wants to be.

Oscillating between the groups, and ostracized by both, Eng learns the hard way that changing your identity and denying your cultural heritage is easier said than done. In attitude and language, Hu strikes the perfect balance between an all-round American teenager who is heavily influenced by the language, culture and behaviour of those she hangs out with, and a second-generation immigrant who struggles with her cultural heritage. We see her confidence growing and slacking, and when it is completely destroyed it cuts you deeply to the bone as well. The strength of director Eng and Americanized, is that it shows that it is not just the main character who is struggling with her sense of belonging, it is visible in Steph’s (Amber Gaston, Mermaid Down, Tomino’s Hell) behaviour as well.

loud and clear reviews Americanized erica eng
A still from Americanized (Erica Eng)

This is interestingly juxtaposed with the Chinese American Denise (Shannon Dang, Kung Fu, Sorry For Your Loss), who is very confident in her identity and how her cultural heritage ties in with that. Throughout the film, both Denise and Steph call Eng out based on her lack of, or adaptation of, cultural markers. According to Denise, ‘she’s black now’, whereas Steph remarks on her ‘fake-ass braids’. Their remarks refer to Eng moving away from her cultural heritage, and thereby risking becoming a ‘fake’ person. Even Eng’s only Asian friend distances himself from her when he sees how far removed she has become from the person she was. Americanized shows how you ‘in’ or ‘out’ -ness in high school all depends on the luck of the draw.

Erica Eng demonstrates with Americanized that you don’t need a feature film to lay bare cultural relationships and interracial struggles in an American high school. In a deeply moving 16 minutes she doesn’t mess around and delves straight into an emotional struggle and turmoil that grips you to the core. The characters in her short film have it twice as tough as ordinary teenagers, besides developing their own identity they are molded by their cultural identity as well. With that they always run the risk of being americanized: adapted or altered to have or conform to typically American characteristics. However, who determines when you are ‘americanized’ and when you are being yourself regardless of cultural background? Americanized is an interesting and emotive short that is definitely worth a watch.

Americanized was screened at Atlanta Film Festival and LA Shorts International before taking home the “Best Short Film” at Geena Davis’s Bentonville Film Festival and the “Young Cineastes Award” at the Palm Springs International ShortFest.

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