Malcom Review: Empowering and Unique

Somehow, the mesmerizing work of Jimmy Vi is filtered out amongst the infinite stream of video content on the internet. Apart from the few thousand eyes which watched his timely and touching piece, Malcolm, his only video on YouTube, Vi’s work generally doesn’t have a strong viewership. But Vi doesn’t need streaming numbers to prove his talents, although he certainly deserves the praise because his reel and even the stills from his short films showcase his level of artistry as a director. 

Malcolm is a distinctly unique and gravitating project from the moment a viewer glances at the short’s poster image. In it, a digital stroke of yellow paint extends across the face of an anonymous Asian-American man. Apart from being visually striking, the image doesn’t mean much to viewers until they watch Malcolm and can then recognize the yellow paint stroke as a symbol of the social and cinematic oppression of Asian-Americans. It’s a perfect encapsulation of Anton Song’s poem which acts as the narrative body of Malcolm. On his Twitter page, Song stresses what mobilized him to create this piece of writing, “After years of seeing Asian-Americans depicted on screen as either villains or buffoons, I decided to do something about. ‘Malcolm’ is a film about the journey from self-hate toward self-love.”

Malcolm isn’t an explicit critique of the negative depictions of Asian-Americans. It’s more of an invitation into the internal headspace of protagonist Anon and his journey towards loving his identity. “Who taught you to hate yourself?” are the first lines of the short film. The narrator’s question is directed both at Anon and pushing viewers who might empathize with him to consider the same. 

The narrator continues to question, “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin?” as rapid-fire cuts of Asian-American men are shown with their eyes crossed out by the same digital stroke of yellow paint. On the last man, the narrator asks, “Who taught you to hate the shape of your eyes?” and the digital effect is inverted. Yellow engulfs the frame while a small slit of open space captures the deadpan stare of Anon’s eyes. He lastly asks, “Who taught you to hate your own body?” and the yellow stroke finds itself on Anon’s private area as he takes a shower. The narrator finally blames “the screen” as the creator of all this self-hate. More specifically, “Hollywood” as a flash of an old b-roll captures the sign of the iconic landmark. With the mention of “the screen”, we see a young Anon fixated to a ray of yellow light emitting from a television screen.

It’s incredible how well Vi is able to explore, quite thematically too, the cinematic and social discrimination of the Asian-American in merely 25 seconds. Different shades of yellow oozes through the mise-en-scène as a constant reminder of a racist color blinded to the Asian-American identity through decades of stereotyping. In these first moments, Vi is also able to touch on the desexualization of the Asian-American man, the “othering” of a distinct body part through the crossing of character’s eyes, and briefly explore the harmful flattening of Asian cultures — all of which were perpetrated through negative images of Asian-Americans which plague U.S. cinematic history. Like these caricatures, Anon and the “Asian Men”, as listed in the credits, are innominate and lack a distinct identity. 

But Vi isn’t interested in acknowledging the explicit discrimination of Asian-Americans. The next segment of Malcolm is celebratory of not only Anon’s journey but of being Asian-American as well. Yellow doesn’t disappear from the frame but it, in fact, becomes more pervasive and saturated color. From here, Malcolm is about taking the harm directed towards Asian-Americans and subverting it. Yellow lighting fills the space of Anon’s flashback scenes. Yellow kitchen utensils and decorations are present as Anon stresses how much his accented mother ensured he was proud of his heritage.  Anon’s father holds a yellow soccer ball as his son acknowledges how hard he worked to provide him with an opportunity in the U.S.

Yet Anon wasn’t always in a position where he viewed his heritage with such positivity. He found solace in his Black partner and in a Black professor’s lectures on Malcolm X in college — it is this Malcolm who the film’s title refers to. Through them, Anon learned how to love his own skin and learned “how to be Asian in America. To be anything in America” Anon stresses.

Even without the words of Song’s poem, Vi’s direction, coupled with the cinematography of his DP Jack Yan Chen, would still be able to capture Anon’s story and Malcom’s political message. Much of the storytelling in Malcolm comes from their creative talents.  Apart from the opening montage, the strongest visual sequence in Malcolm is seen when Anon stares down at a buried television which later sees a load of yellow paint seep out its sides. It’s a moment that symbolically represents Anon’s forgoing of the stereotypes which had bogged down his self-confidence for years and has absolutely no dialogue. 

Malcolm, and Jimmy Vi at that stands out not only because of its telling of an empowering message but simply because how it tells this message with such originality. It’s a refreshing project, even in the niche film corner of Vimeo, that stands against the tide of normalcy amongst video content on the internet. 

Vi’s other ethereal and experimental projects can all be found on his Vimeo.