First Vote (USA, 2020) [CAAMFest Online]

In her debut documentary, First Vote, Yin Chen presents a refreshing new look into an often-unexamined aspect of the American electorate – that of the Asian-American voter. Through several case studies and interviews, First Vote attempts to dismiss the notion of monoliths among the Asian-American community and replace it with a much more diverse tapestry of ideas. Chen’s film is both a daring and eye-opening in its depiction of Asian-American voters, though not always clear about what it wants to say.

First Vote follows four Asian-Americans in Ohio and North Carolina during the 2018 Midterm elections the US. Lance Chen is a conservative Chinese immigrant who obtained his citizenship in 2016 so he could vote for Donald Trump in the general presidential election. Kaiser Kuo is a Democratic activist of Chinese descent who lives with his wife and family in North Carolina. Sue Googe is another Chinese immigrant who made a fortune in real estate and who ran unsuccessfully for Congress under the Tea Party banner. Lastly, Jenifer Ho is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with strong liberal beliefs. Each of them explains – and sometimes justifies – in detail their political beliefs as they prepare to vote in the upcoming election.

The documentary’s opening shot is, for better or for worse, also its most memorable: a group of “Chinese-Americans for Trump” campaigning during the 2016 general election. “Is this for real?” asks a passer-by – another young Asian-American woman – who is clearly surprised and shocked to see any Chinese-American support for Trump. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, this opening shot is bound to raise an eyebrow or two, and certainly grab your attention. Unfortunately, what follows is far less intriguing. After the introduction of the four characters and their respective political views, the film loses some of its focus and falls into general diffuseness. Each of the four subjects begin to meander into their own individual rants with no particular end or purpose in sight, until the story loses most of its connective tissue. Many times, in the middle of First Vote, I racked my brain and asked “OK, so what is this about?” and I kept coming up short. The ending tries to patch everything up with a generalized “voting is important” kind of message, but it does really add up with what preceded it. 

As the film points out a few times, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority in the United States, estimated to surpass every other by the year 2055. Yet, they remain one of the least targeted demographics by either side of the political spectrum. The people portrayed in First Vote span the entire American political spectrum, from gun-toting Tea Party conservatives to left-wing hippies with transgender chicken mascots – and everything in between. The film makes it a point not to take sides and instead treat each of them on equal footing. In this sense, First Vote is not a political documentary. Director Chen rarely comments on the political views of her interviewees (no matter how ridiculous they might sound at times), as she seems far more interested in exploring the consequences of their political lives. Kaiser’s wife, for example, comments on the challenge of making friends in a conservative area when her husband is an outspoken liberal. Similarly, Lance Chen hints frequently to the difficulties of being a “minority” Republican, when most people of color gravitate towards the Democrats.

Ultimately, First Vote is noteworthy – albeit somewhat unpolished – documentary that helps dismiss certain preconceptions about the Asian-American community and their place in American politics. While I was not entirely satisfied with the execution, it represents a collection of voices that deserve to be heard.

First Vote is showing at CAAMFest Online on May 15.