Actor criticizes media stereotypes of Asian-Americans

Thirty-one-year-old actor Parry Shen does not speak with an accent or deliver Chinese food, although television and movies lead America to believe this is what Asian-Americans do.

“People shape their outlooks on movies,” Shen said in a presentation with the Asian American Association (AAA) on Nov. 18 in the Allen Drawing Room.

Shen stars as Ben Manibag, a hardworking high school junior with a hidden life of thievery, drug dealing, wild partying and violence, in the film “Better Luck Tomorrow.”

In the film, which earned $25 million, Ben pines for the cheerleader who sits next to him in biology class, and he and three high school acquaintances develop into a suburban gang. The 2003 film was hailed for placing Asians in non-stereotypical roles, yet was denounced by others in the audience as immoral.

At his presentation at the College, Shen showed the audience a documentary of the actors touring movie theaters where the movie premiered for audience reactions.

“The interesting bad guys in movies can be sympathized with,” Shen said. “No bad guys are pure evil. (These kids) were just unsupervised and misguided.”

Shen, who was an Advanced Placement student in high school with a high GPA and no curfew, said he could relate to Ben. He and his friends wrote other students’ term papers for money – guaranteed with a full refund if the other student got a “B.”

“I was smart and I could get away with stuff because I was smart,” he said.

“Those are the dangerous kids; those are the honors students who do things like Columbine.”

He never went the extent his character went to, though. Ben’s story was based on “The honor roll murder,” a Fullerton, Calif.murder of honor student Stuart Tay by an accomplice in a burglary plan. Both the honor student murderer and victim, children of prominent Asian families in a suburban community, wanted to attend Princeton and dated the same girl.

Shen, laid-back and comfortable talking conversationally in front of the crowd, drew gales of laughter from the full audience in the Allen Drawing Room.

Hall security officers at the Allen Hall desk turned to watch, and residents, about to turn in to their rooms for the night, leaned over the rails as Shen had audience members act out the roles he formerly played – a delivery man, a student who fetches the principal, a cab driver and a cook expected to karate chop while preparing lamb chops.

Shen said a director suggested to him in his first-ever role as a food delivery man who allegedly steals a ring, “Maybe it’d be funnier if you did more of an accent?”

Shen said he was puzzled when he first entered the film industry and the only roles available were food deliverers and people who were “there for an Asian reason,” he said. Another “Better Luck Tomorrow” cast member, Jason J. Tobin (who plays Ben’s best friend Virgil), made a video of all the times he had to deliver food on screen.

“What a freaking waste of talent,” Shen said to the audience, pointing out the quality of his acting in the car scene, in which Tobin chatters nervously and cries after his character helps beat up a man at a party.

“Not every Asian-American is the stereotype that is depicted on TV,” senior computer science major Eric Tarn said after watching Shen’s presentation. “We’re just people; we just do things like everyone else.”

While Ben Manibag’s future lies in uncertainty at the end of the movie, Parry Shen’s acting career is a different story. He is currently working on a project called “Jurassic Park Meets a Saber-toothed Tiger,” a TV movie shooting in Fiji for three weeks, according to his online journal.

He also recently co-starred in “The Deviants” (2004) and “The Hazing” (2004), both now out on DVD. He has booked Dell computer and Circuit City commercials as well.

“I won’t do anything that won’t be interesting,” he said. “Even if the project is a dud, I’ll find a way to make it interesting and memorable.”