“What’s happening, hot stuff?” squawks a Chinese-accented Gedde Watanabe—native of Ogden, Utah, son of a Japanese woman who was forced into an internment camp in the 1940s—as “Long Duk Dong” from Sixteen Candles (1984). The ’80s hit film is still venerated as a classic in the hallowed shrine of John Hughes, a devotional object of teen-movie nostalgia.
The permeating, ever-present sense of “the Other” comes packaged with another, almost tangible, feeling of a vice. In the midst of this “otherness,” a distinctly foreign hand clasps onto something vital, something more wholeheartedly necessary and disproportionately essential to the being than anything, even flesh. The hand stays, immobile, unmoving, attempting and succeeding to block something that is self, instead pushing almost a different person to the surface, another image, an unreal perception. At one point, it was difficult to even notice the “otherness.” I could watch television and movies, filtering through vast quantities of media without a thought of who is and who isn’t, or which character is what color. But some point down the line, an awareness manifested that I was not a part of the American ideal, or rather, that something bigger believed that I was not a part of the American ideal. The feeling of this unrelenting and omnipresent appendage clamping down is not immediate. The sentiment fastens its grip quietly, and builds in intensity, slowly and readily, because the inevitability of its arrival is unquestionable, along with all of the notions and conventionalities that one will learn to perceive, and learn to see that others, too, perceive those ideas in the same way.
Even as it stretches and gropes for life, a film can only exist as a warped mirror of reality, especially at the prime of realism. And, especially when it appears in a more representational, and not presentational nature, it is ever inviting the audience to see something in themselves. Often, this occurs on a human level, but it tends to work its way into other forms of awareness. Unfortunately, it proves difficult to find yourself in something that, for the entirety of your life, simply isn’t there, even in a “golden age” where a startling number of white Americans hold the belief that racism is cured, pat each other on the back, and heap acclaim onto anything they can trump as “diversity.”
Universally, there has always been an underlying hunger in children (of any background) to see themselves, or future versions of themselves, projected loud and clear onto screens big and little. The difference for Asian Americans of my generation, and unquestionably the generations before mine, is that we must search for that projection. Animation, cartoons especially, is a beloved and close Saturday-morning companion of many children today (and probably for the last fifty plus years), but in the last two decades, this genre has served as so much more than that for those of Asiatic descent. Samurai Jack, American Dragon, Jackie Chan Adventures, and literal mountains of English-dubbed anime graced the homes of Asian children in the wonder-years of the early 2000s. I am not entirely certain if the vast majority of Asian Americans have completely realized that the—almost novelty—shock of our representation, that Look! It’s us! feeling, right there on our own home televisions, was what drew us in so closely to these programs in the first place. And it is for this reason that, in a packed away (but of course well loved) part of my heart, there lies a valley of appreciation for these moving picture frames that brought people who looked just like us to our home televisions, which I believe helped countless masses of East, South, and every cardinal direction of this generation’s Asian Americans to discover a sliver of self acceptance in their formative years. But it still wasn’t, and isn’t enough.
There undoubtedly exist some films that feature narratives so universally entrancing or soul-moving that getting caught up in them is inevitable no matter your ethnic—or otherwise—different background. However, if after seeing feature after feature, homogeneous cast after homogeneous cast, one realizes that their entire ethnicity is entirely unrepresented, or worse, packaged into either a fleeting minor character or a completely veil-less stereotype, then these same films begin to be alienating.
It proved difficult for young Asians of the first decade of the twenty first century to alleviate this encompassing, clasping fist of the Other, especially in American cinema. There is only so many times one can rewatch The Joy Luck Club (1993). Personally, I turned towards the filmography of my childhood hero, and the world that opened to me in the vast universe of late twentieth-century Jackie Chan kung-fu B-movies is truly astounding. Drunken Master (1978), Snake In Eagle’s Shadow (1978), Rumble In the Bronx (1995) (Hey, an American one!), Crime Story (1993), Police Story (1985), and even the ridiculous The Fearless Hyena (1979) brought something indescribably pleasing to me as a child. No longer was I forced to watch Asians, whom I subconsciously viewed as a reflection of myself, be portrayed as quiet, subservient, sinister, devious, sneaky, or worst of all, IT guy #3. Instead, there I was, leaping across unbelievable distances, punching the bad guys twenty feet into the air with cartoonish “Pow! Bang! Thwack!” action noises, and most importantly, finally being the hero of the story.
The movies that I endured in my middle school career did not contain a single film that the Academy would touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole. Much of the filmography I consumed in that tenuous era of my life could be categorized as either comedy or kung-fu, with the movies that fell into the “comedy” category also starring incredible talent such as Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. What veritas, what incredible range! But my favorite film from that young and naive era of my life is undoubtedly Todd Phillip’s The Hangover (2009), which, in fairness, entertains on a level a few steps above the modern mainstream comedy vehicle. Yet, it wasn’t the flashy shots of Vegas, the white baby named Carlos, or the obnoxiously endearing weirdness that is Zach Galifianakis that pulled me into The Hangover. No, my never-ending love for that movie was all for Leslie Chow, possibly one of the greatest Asian characters ever created for movies.
In breaking down Leslie Chow, played beautifully by Ken Jeong, or any well-fleshed out character in a story, it is essential to look at a characters’ core beliefs and values. And by evaluating these traits in Mr. Chow, a picture is presented to the audience, one as clear as day. Three things define and paint the portrait that is Mr. Chow, 1) his inherent Americanness, 2) his utter lack of both respect for authorities and fear of death, and 3) his incompetent stupidity, accented with sharp and extraordinarily crude humor. While these three features unfortunately result in an angry Korean psychopath with too much confidence in his nude body, in reality it creates the perfect formula for the antithesis of the archetypal Hollywood Asian stereotype.
What is America? Who is America? Why is America? The abstract ideal of Americanism, as a collective of an American identity, is not chained down by race. However, the attribution of Leslie Chow, the Vietnamese-accented Chinese man played by a Korean actor, with what I generalized as Americanness is understandably confusing. However, Mr. Chow’s grand, overflowing personality was nothing if not the embodiment of the largeness, the free-thinking and free-willed, and the friendly-bordering-on-rudeness mentality globally associated with Americans. The craziness literally overflows from Ken Jeong in the performance, yet, somewhere, buried under the layers of the frat-comedy-esque jokes that are so prevalent in The Hangover, we see in Leslie Chow the kind of unrestrained cowboy craziness one might come to associate with a spaghetti Western, or even a Tarantino film. The most prevalent roles for Asian men throughout the history of Hollywood, hero or villain, have often portrayed them as subservient, or even feminine. Leslie Chow, international criminal, drug dealer, and cop-shooter, completely dominates the four white male characters in the film through his use of physical and verbal assaults, unfortunately riddled with body shaming and rampant misled homophobia. The biggest problems lie in his appropriation of black culture, and the aforementioned homophobia, that is more attributable to these sorts of crude comedic films than of the character. It is understandable that one could see the role of Leslie Chow as merely a return to the type of physical comedy Asian stereotypes similar to Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mr. Yuinochi. However, rather than being pigeonholed into the role of another doctor (which in fact Jeong was prior to his acting career), another Japanese office worker, or any of the other compliant, quiet Asians seen in Hollywood today, actor and comedian Ken Jeong’s character instead decides to jump out of the trunk of a car stark-raving naked and wielding a crowbar, and it’s difficult not to appreciate the beauty in that.
Generally, there is a tendency for me to either focus on movies featuring Asian actors, even in minor roles, or to place particular care into observing Asian portrayals in film. In my eagle-eyed observation of a wide ranging collection of mainstream films featuring (even in small roles) Asian actors, the gap in Hollywood cinema that has served hardest to overcome, for both male and female Asian actors does not lay in the absence of antiheros, tough guys, or badasses such as Ken Jeong’s Leslie Chow, but in romantic or sexually powerful characters. The Asians that have come even close to the sex-idol status that so many white actors and actresses have achieved, however, would be the Asian and Asian American women that played the fetishized roles of Chinese or Japanese seductresses, geishas, or prostitutes. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket comes to mind here, with Papillon Soo Soo’s “me love you long time” having made pop culture history, and probably setting Asian women in America back by twenty or so years.
However, in August of 2018, thunder seemed to strike Hollywood, the land of dreams. Did the overwhelming majority of studio executives fall asleep at the perfect moment? And, in that same moment, did three of them accidentally hit comically large green-light buttons on their desks? Either way, that month, three movies starring, directed and/or written by Asian Americans were released, culminating in what is now known in prominent Asian social circles as the “Asian August.” Searching, with John Cho, To All the Boys I Loved Before, with Lana Condor, and lastly but most importantly, Crazy Rich Asians, with Constance Wu and Henry Golding. All three of the films garnered positive critical reception as well as universal acclaim, but while all three deserved the merit received in their own right, Crazy Rich Asians is more relevant and significant on an entirely different level.
“Least desirable” is the term used to denote the statistics of dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr, and a variety of other apps, that uncovered how Asian men, as well as black women, were rated as the least attractive in users’ racial dating preferences, as discovered by researchers at Cornell University in a 2018 study. While online dating platforms are a modern invention, this recent statistic has been reflected by Hollywood from the beginning of the arrival of Asian actors who were actually Asian, and not Mickey Rooney in yellowface. From women constantly being played off as women in distress, often with a severe white-savior complex, to men being portrayed as asexual, arrogant, or otherwise weak. Crazy Rich Asians I would say is the first mainstream movie to almost entirely avoid falling into such pitfalls. Which is not to say that Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t suffer from a series of the traditional “tried and true” rom-com tropes. The disapproving mother, the bitch-in-sheep’s clothing, the campy gay friend, the beta couple, and so on. Crazy Rich Asians is by no means the perfect film, and could do with a few trimmings of flamboyant dress montages and the like, but it serves as a vehicle for representation that could very well open the doors to new, fresh movies directed by, written by, and starring more and more Asian characters. Other than that, certain culturally influenced moments and subtle Asian traits in that movie really pulled at the ol’ heartstrings of many an Asian American, and it is doubtless that, on top of the bright yellow path for the future the film has forged, it has also created a lot of joy for quite a large group of people who have waited for something like this for a very, very long time. With Henry Golding, a virtual unknown, and Constance Wu being rocketed to the A-list of Hollywood celebrities, the possibilities and outcomes from Crazy Rich Asians are boundless.
The journey has been long, and hard fought, but the path has begun to smooth out a touch here and there. No one should allow the system to be satisfied with itself for how it is, to let it wallow in its own indulgent and other-pitying pride. Why should we let the flame die? For representation to be at the forefront of Hollywood and cinema, one should instead stoke the flame, and allow what has already begun to swell into a raging inferno. Diversification is important in life itself, and in film, leads to original, interesting storylines and beautiful renditions of connections and cultures, especially through the lens of American minorities. Asian Americans should take a lesson from how we are portrayed, as foreign, weak, abstractly minded, a model for subservience, objects, painted clowns, and push more and more forward with a firm resilience and a strong mindset forged from the ignorance of ourselves in which we were bred to believe.
After each of these titles, place the year in parentheses, as above.
Insert year, just here at the first mention of the film.