Eunice Lau’s A-Town Boyz follows three Asian-American men in the Atlanta metro area through the early years of the 2010s. Each of them — Vickz, Bizzy and Eugene — are children of first-generation immigrants, and the scars of what their parents and families experienced weigh heavily on their lives and the choices they’ve made as adults. Vickz is from a now-middle-class Korean family that struggles with his rebellious ways while trying its best to support him and his dream to become a rapper. His best friend and performance partner, Bizzy, was raised by his mother in an impoverished Cambodian neighborhood. Eugune, aka “Big Brother,” grew up in Brooklyn as one of the only Asian kids in his Italian neighborhood. He had to fight for everything and has entered Atlanta with a chip on his shoulder and designs on continuing his criminal empire while dreaming of going straight. All three men live lives that lead to conflict with law enforcement as they struggle to understand their place in the world.
Lau’s pitch for the documentary was to depict a side of the Asian-American experience that runs contrary to model minority stereotypes, and it certainly succeeds on that front — but that’s not the only commendable achievement. Filmed over the course of several years, Boyz provides an intimate chronicle of the lives of each man in a thorough and thoughtful way.
Vickz gets the most screen time. He and his girlfriend, Joanne, share three children and have been together for several years. Over the years documented, Joanne struggles to care for her children while Vickz works hard to make his way as a rapper. He has trouble doing so, and an undisclosed struggle with drugs and alcohol seems to make matters worse. At one point, he makes contact with notable local producers. However, nothing seems to come of it despite his raw talent and skill. His story is compelling, alternating between tragedy and triumph in equal measure until things ultimately fall apart.
Bizzy, Vickz’s friend until after their mutual incarceration in 2013, has an equally compelling story. At one point, he takes Lau on a tour of his home, riddled with bullet holes from multiple drive-by shootings. Although friends, he and Vickz couldn’t come from more different backgrounds. The latter has two parents who work (perhaps so much they couldn’t make time for him). Bizzy’s mother was in an arranged marriage and had him young; after fleeing the marriage, she raised him and his siblings on her own in an immigrant neighborhood rife with gang-related violence in the absence of opportunity. He ultimately finds god in prison, a part of his story on which I wish there would have been more information.
The last subject is Eugene. His connection to the music world is tenuous by comparison. He tries to sponsor artists and an R&B group. He has no real relationship with Vickz, whom he views as untrustworthy. Eugene’s background in New York City is a fascinating perspective on the interaction between different types of immigrant communities. His willingness to openly discuss criminal behavior on camera is equally compelling; at one point, Lau is in the car while he and another driver travel to what seems like a business shakedown. He was ultimately convicted of violent extortion of businesses and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
All three men have complicated relationships with their parents, who dealt with difficulty assimilating to American culture while trying to raise their own children. Vickz’s father, for example, was a stockbroker in Korea; in the United States, he had to do manual labor, eventually owning a cleaning company and, later, a restaurant. He struggled and sacrificed to provide his son a life in the United States but wasn’t able to be present to help Vickz assimilate. The cross-generational turbulence had a profound impact on the direction of their lives. There isn’t a lot of focus on Vickz as a father, although one stand-out sequence involves a miscarriage he and Joanne suffered, and I wish there had been more opportunity to explore that thread, too. It may simply be that there wasn’t much to talk about by the end of the story told here, as Joanne’s final appearance does not leave the impression Vickz was where he needed to be at the time of filming.
The postscript makes it clear all three men are doing their best to distance themselves from their pasts and live new lives. Vickz is still working as a musician; Bizzy is working a stable job; Eugene is trying to live straight. This moment in time, however, captures three turbulent lives doing all they can to stay steady in a country that still marginalizes their experiences. It’s a compelling watch and an excellently made look at their lives, warts and all.