Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)

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This film recounts the murder of Vincent Chin, an automotive engineer mistaken as Japanese who was slain by an assembly line worker who blamed him for the competition by the Japanese auto ... See full summary »

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This film recounts the murder of Vincent Chin, an automotive engineer mistaken as Japanese who was slain by an assembly line worker who blamed him for the competition by the Japanese auto makers that were threatening his job. It then recounts how that murderer escaped justice in the court system. Written by Kenneth Chisholm <kchishol@execulink.com>

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racism | asian american | See All (2) »


Crime | Documentary






Release Date:

11 March 1987 (USA)  »

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Not an easy watch but it's one that must be made
30 October 2015 | by (São Paulo, Brazil) – See all my reviews

Painfully uncomfortable. Trust me, these days that description can be a good way to bring out the qualities of a film. If I'm feeling such discomfort through a film or a documentary than I can say the director did a great job. And in a project such as "Who Killed Vincent Who?" I don't think the idea was to leave audiences feeling good about themselves or anything else. It makes us reflect on why hate crimes, or murders with futile reasoning happen and about the everlasting impact it causes on families, cultures and in this case, a minority.

A summary of the events you're about to see: in 1982, Chinese American Vincent Chin was brutally murdered by two men (father and stepson) in front of a strip club. Conflicted reports mention that a confusion ensued inside the club, later on brought outside with both guys carrying baseball bats blaming Chin for taking over the jobs of Americans - back when Japanese auto companies were booming with their operations around the world, leaving no competition to other nations' companies, and with that feeling in mind was that a Chinese man was confused with a Japanese and killed because he was Asian. In the aftermath, the two men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz (the first, a still employed auto company supervisor; the latter, recently fired), were charged with manslaughter only, the judge thinking that they didn't have the intention of killing, and they got 90 days of probation. The Asian community hit the media, protested and found ways to bring those two to court again - this time, for Civil Rights violation. And that's where the movie leaves us in suspense to see how the final result is gonna be, at the same time, it goes back and forth with the night of the murder. In between, there's a ferocious criticism of the American judicial system and its countless failures in dealing with the case. To leave you enraged!

I need to go back to the painfully uncomfortable feeling which started this review. The greatness of this documentary is that the director follows all parts involved in the tragic murder of Vincent Chin, interviewing his grieving mother, his best friend, eyewitnesses of the confusion that led to Chin's murder, one juror of the last trial and also one of the perpetrators, acquitted again and again, barely spending time in jail. It's extremely difficult to watch Mrs. Lily Chin in news reports and the film's interviews. You get to see her endless pain through the years, sentences that begin and hardly ever end due to her emotional state, and in that you can see the tragedy of a caring mother who lost her most precious life element, her son. You can see it, but you can't truly understand it unless you live it. The reactions you get with her testimonies is one where you either pause the movie to recompose yourself (one simply couldn't do that while in theaters) or you force yourself to see how it unfolds.

But there's another thing that makes you more uncomfortable, an aspect more troubled and upsetting. And that is when Ronald Ebens is given the opportunity to talk about his side of the story - his stepson appears once, only to smile and stay silent about anything. Ebens talks about how it all started, blaming Chin for things and going on the record to say that his "manslaughter" case wasn't a civil rights case because he's not a racist - the movie provides the real deal on how the technical use of words saved those two. The obstacle we as viewers get with this guy, his wife and his loyal dumb friends is that each time they appear they talk about the case as if it was just a minor incident that didn't cause any effect on anyone. At no time, Ebens feels sorry about the crime, only admitting some regret a few years ago. Every time the Ebens team popped on the screen, I got my eyes rolling. He gets to live comfortable and laughing while Mrs. Chin barely continued with her life, dealing with a huge loss for almost 20 years.

I won't blame directors Renee Tajima and Christine Choy for including the perpetrators in the film, it's interesting to have the perspectives from all sources involved, but let us be honest, it's difficult to watch those kind of people not paying for their crimes and sounding like a small thing just happened. Ebens and team made a fool of themselves and in such a manner, it's embarrassing to watch. And with all that in mind, the challenge brought by the project made it more rewarding, gripping and intelligent. Tajima and Choy not only brings those aspects but they also take no part in the matter, no narrator and no biased intruders telling us who to support (gotta miss those old documentaries).

One thing that actually bothered me a lot was the repetitive inclusion of happy songs played here and there in the movie. Perhaps there's some irony behind such choice but not only it was distractive, unfitting for the whole thing, but above all, it felt disrespecting to Chin's memory. It might be extreme of me in saying that but I really think so. A loud cheerful song is used in the final credits right after a last interview with Mrs. Chin. It's just wrong.

If interested in the topic, I suggest "Vincent Who?", a non-official follow-up to the events of this film, with a focus on how Vincent Chin's murder impacted the Asian American community in terms of mobilization, union and how their leaders acted and protested in similar hate crimes.

I sound like a turmoil of mixed emotions about this film, you're not reading wrong. It was a turmoil but a hard-hitting and fascinating one. 9/10

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