As the best documentary filmmakers know, uncovering absolute truth is nearly impossible. Facts, they're easier; gospel is always elusive.
That truth about truth hovers over even the most revealing documentaries. Implied in the camera's search is an understanding that only evidence can be presented, and the ramifications of that evidence are usually open to speculation.
Christine Choy and Renee Tajima accept the paradox in "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" (1988), an absorbing piece of reporting showcased Saturday afternoon on the final day of UC Irvine's Asian/Pacific Film and Video Festival.
Choy and Tajima know who killed Chin, a Chinese-American and Detroit native, in 1982, but their inquiry reaches further, to linger on what conditions could allow such a crime.
These are the facts: The early '80s were angry times in Detroit, especially for lifelong auto workers, many of whom had lost jobs in the growing war between U.S. and Japanese car manufacturers. Japan-bashing was entering the lexicon, and images of American laborers taking sledgehammers to Toyotas and Hondas were violently fresh.
Chin, 27, an automotive engineer, went out one summer night to Fancy Pants, a local topless bar. His mother, pointing out that he was to be married soon, scolded him. Chin promised her it would be his "last time" at Fancy Pants.
During an evening of drinking, Chin argued with Ron Ebens, a 43-year-old auto plant foreman, and his stepson, Michael Nitz. After Chin left, they followed him outside, where the confrontation continued. Later, Ebens and Nitz cornered Chin at a McDonald's and clubbed him repeatedly with a baseball bat. Chin died four days later, and Ebens and Nitz were charged in his death soon after.
Each men was found guilty of manslaughter, given three years probation and fined $3,750.
The events are laid out in a mostly dispassionate way; Tajima and Choy know the words and gestures of those involved can tell the story with all the drama they need. Through interviews both disquietingly matter-of-fact and compellingly emotional, everybody from Ebens to Chin's mother offers his side.
Ebens creates the impression of an Ordinary Joe that belies his violent streak. It's chilling when we realize his crime; he's your middle-aged neighbor with an ugly interior.
Chin's mother is a contrasting figure; her pain is right there in several teary shots. The filmmakers approach her sympathetically, but also question her participation in demonstrations by Asian-American groups who came out in force to denounce the court verdict on Ebens and Nitz.
The sentence they received seems wrong, but the protesters' use of Chin's mother as a symbol to generate unrest is also questioned.
Ultimately, the filmmakers are unable to answer all the questions surrounding Chin's death, but that wasn't their intent. Was the murder inspired by racism fanned by frustration? Or was it, as Ebens and Nitz claimed, the result of a brawl that went too far? The details are there, and it's up to us to interpret them.
* Christine Choy and Renee Tajima's "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" will screen Saturday about 4:45 p.m., following Rea Tajiri's 32-minute video, "History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige," in UC Irvine's 262 Humanities Hall, Campus Drive and Bridge Road. Free. (714) 856- 4978.