From the title, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” I expected a true crime/investigative reporting type of documentary. I had not heard of Vincent Chin before and I assumed the premise would be about the search for a man’s killer(s). I was proved wrong quickly, as in the first 5 minutes, not only are we told who killed Vincent Chin, but we are given eye-witness statements, police testimony, and evidence to prove that the two men responsible really did commit the murder of Vincent Chin by beating him severely with a baseball bat. This gives the title a new meaning, forcing our original assumptions to change, and instead to consider the larger contexts and forces that contributed to Vincent’s killing.
I’ve always been I’m fascinated by the way authors/filmmakers are able to portray the psychology, context, and atmosphere of an actual crime that took place, but also providing us with insights into backgrounds of victim and perpetrator. Last year I took a class on true crime writing and my professor always said that the best true crime writing reveals something about the larger structure of the community. We read books about different types of murderers and sociopaths some going so far as to kill their own families for their own self-advancement. With this background, I thought I’d be able to handle this documentary similarly, but I could not have been more wrong. “Who Killed Vincent Chin” left me feeling the most uncomfortable, outraged, and helpless than I’ve ever felt watching and reading about true crime. Unlike the books I’d read, it wasn’t clear to everyone how evil these men were. That being said, the ideas and emotions that it evokes become all the more memorable and thought provoking because of it.
What initially caught me off guard was the form of the documentary and the way snippets were put together with cultural and contextual transitional or background pieces. A men’s jazz group singing, a conversation in a café about globalization and losing the auto-industry, Christmas music, baseball games, traditional Chinese music are just a few of the pieces that help create the feel of the merging/conflict of cultures. Thrown into the mix are interviews with various people related to the crime. I immediately noticed the attitude toward the murders and their family was not as demonizing as most interviews of murderers are. At that point in the film, I was just very upset that they were even being interviewed in their own home, talking lightheartedly and acting as if an inconvenience had hit their family, rather than being in a prison interview room. As the documentary progressed I saw how including this worked to form the entire story, with multiple voices. It was because the film was put together in such a way that we were able to truly feel the spectrum of feelings in this crime. Nichols analysis of the film also points out the form, saying that it creates a space outside of reality, different from typical crime reporting or documentary. It fuses the very real interviews within a form that is opposite of typical realism structures of most documentaries.
The structure, the story, the interviews, the media, and the history are all important to this story. And what makes it so frustrating is that it isn’t completely obvious to everyone what horrible people Ebens and Nibtz are, let alone deeply saddened and troubled by Vincent’s death and his mother’s grief and plight. We see Eben’s wife, Nibtz’s girlfriend, friends, and co-workers saying what great people the murders are. One quote stood out: “I don’t know the facts, but in my mind I know they are innocent.”(girlfriend of Michael). This speaks to not only the ignorance involved, but also the willful nature of it. Why not get the facts or take a step back to look at what actually happened? So many people did not see this as a murder, but something bad that happened to Ebens who was a “respectable autoworker.”
I think the Asian American community really came together because they saw this extreme injustice and realized that too many people are just okay with it. It became about more than a pair of killers. The justice system, portrayal of Asians in the media, and treatment of Asian Americans in everyday life all had a hand in this injustice. What also frustrated me was that it wasn’t the public that was outraged, but the “Asian American community.” Yes, non Asian Americans were part of the response and movement, but they are only seen in terms of helping the Asian American cause or “plight”. The way I saw this crime was a devaluation of human life and a blatant disregard for the family and friends. Shouldn’t this make everyone upset? Shouldn’t this make everyone want to take action? After all with the recent news stories that are very similar to the Vincent Chin case, things still haven’t changed too much, and it could happen to anyone.