13 thoughts on “Asian-Americans in American Cinema

  1. I read this and thought it was pretty good. He mentioned a few actors almost as second thoughts whose other roles I think are a bigger deal. First, George Takei in the Star Trek movies. While he was never the star (I think Nimoy and Shatner were always the real stars), in the latter films he was as integral to the films as the other characters. Add his ambiguous Asian-ness and the actor’s homosexuality, and I would have given him a few more words in this article than he got.

    Something might also be said about the X-Men films, which have featured several Asian actors, including Lady Deathstrike and Psylocke.

    Still, a pretty good piece.

  2. A part of me feels like George Takei, Kelly Hu, and Olivia Munn fall a little outside the scope of the article,. which seems to identify milestones over time. And I think I would mention Pat Morita, for his role as Arnold in Happy Days and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid before I mentioned those actors.

    One film that I think might bear mentioning is Eric Byler’s Charlotte Sometimes. What’s notable, in my view, is that the characters are just characters versus Asian characters. Accept for maybe one brief scene, I think Asian culture not really in the forefront of the film. I think Harold and Kumar do this, but that film is a comedy, while Charlotte Sometimes is a drama–so I think both could be mentioned simultaneously. On the other hand, I suspect few people watched Charlotte Sometimes, so I can understand why it wasn’t listed.

    Still, i think the Asian actors/character that are characters first, and Asians second is the next step–particularly in the central roles. I think this is what disappoints me about Crazy Rich Asians–or at least the vibe I get from it, as I haven’t seen it, yet. It doesn’t look like a film that has left the self-conscious depiction of Asian culture. To get a sense of what I’m thinking of, think about films made in Asian countries. They feature Asian characters/actors, but the culture is often not a central focus of those movies. I think we’ll have reached a critical milestone when we see more Asian-American films like that. (Are there films like this that I’ve failed to mention?)

  3. I think the point of the article is studio pictures, and Charlote Sometimes is an indy. It’s probably why he doesn’t mention Better Luck Tomorrow as well.

    It’s probably worth noting that Crazy Rich Asians is set in Singapore and although the main character is American, the other characters are Chinese-Singaporean or Chinese-Malaysian, and most of them were educated in Europe. It’s actually a critical part of the story. So this isn’t the movie you’re looking for exactly, although the main character is definitely an American (emphasis American) of Chinese descent. It’s a culture movie for sure, but not exactly what you’re thinking of (with the exception of one gratuitous scene that’s not from the novel).

  4. It’s a culture movie for sure, but not exactly what you’re thinking of (with the exception of one gratuitous scene that’s not from the novel).

    I would be surprised if this was the case, based on the trailer.

  5. I don’t know if you’ve read much of the commentary on this film, but I would gently point out that many people in Asian America feel their stories aren’t being told, and haven’t been told. It’s the first major studio picture to feature a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which means a thirty-five-year-old Chinese American may have no memory of it. This is too long between films telling Asian American stories. So while I agree with you about milestone pictures, I don’t think we’re in a place yet where much of America (and certainly not Hollywood) is ready to make the leap you crave, because even the culture stories haven’t been told.

    An episode of Fresh Off the Boat a couple of years ago pounded this home for me. The show is set in 1998, and this episode was about Chinese New Year. White people in the show didn’t even know there was such a thing as Chinese New Year, something that surprised me. I asked my Chinese friends in California (California!) if there was ever a mention of Chinese New Year in school, since that’s where I first learned about it, and they said no. We’re still growing up in an America whose general population remains largely ignorant of some of the most important parts of our cultures, and this isn’t right.

    I feel like this somehow connected to poke bowls in California with mandarin oranges and watermelon.

  6. I don’t know if you’ve read much of the commentary on this film, but I would gently point out that many people in Asian America feel their stories aren’t being told, and haven’t been told.

    I would consider myself in this group.

    It’s the first major studio picture to feature a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which means a thirty-five-year-old Chinese American may have no memory of it.

    I haven’t seen the film, but if it’s film that is self-conscious about culture, like Joy Luck, or depicts Asians in exotic sort of way, that would be disappointing. This kind of reminds me of Kumu Kahua plays that don’t move past immigrant stories–not to say that they haven’t now, but for a time in the past it seemed that way, and I would have wanted to see stories that moved beyond–stories that reflected my experience. That’s what I really liked about Charlotte Sometimes–I could relate to the characters and situations. Both reminded me of people I knew in college. Imagine if another 35 years go by, we don’t move beyond stories/characters that are self-consciously cultural. Even if mainstream society wasn’t ready for it, that would be depressing.

    We’re still growing up in an America whose general population remains largely ignorant of some of the most important parts of our cultures, and this isn’t right.

    Right, but I don’t know if movies and literature should be the vehicles to rectify this–both should be about the characters and story. Art that has a social agenda, that seeks to educate the larger society, doesn’t seem to work so well, in my view.

  7. I finally saw Crazy Rich Asians as part of a discussion group I’m leading. Flower Drum Song, made in 1961, was the previous film we saw and discussed. Part of the reason for choosing the former was to see the way depictions of Asian-Americans changed over time, particularly in the context of a big Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast.

    Overall, my sense is that the depictions haven’t changed all that much, not in terms of moving beyond the exotic or emphasizing culture and culture-clash themes.

    Putting the Asian-American issue on the side, I would say the film isn’t very strong as a film. To me, the story and characters are underdeveloped and unresolved in satisfying ways. In short, there are problems with the writing. Additionally, I thought the casting, particularly for the female lead, was not as a strong. The film could have used someone with charisma and star power–think of J-Lo in Selena. Or to make a more apt comparison think of Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. I say “apt” because the film seems to want Rachel to be the spunky girl-next-door type. Ultimately, though, I think the writing was the bigger problem.

    One last comment. The characters are certainly not normal people–people that the average citizen can relate to. I’m still on the hunt for films with Asian-American characters like this, so if you guys have any recommendations, particularly if the films are good, please let me know.

    (Besides Charlotte Sometimes, the ones that come to mind for are the Surrogate Valentine trilogy, especially the third one. Mitchell, I believe you watched White on Rice. Do you think I would like that?)

    1. Your response is valid, but there are still reasons to celebrate this movie. First, I’ll say that the only two Asian American characters in this movie are Rachel and Rachel’s mom, who’s barely in this thing. Rachel is a far cry from Asian American portrayals in films in earlier decades. She’s a college professor. Of game theory.

      The themes of culture and culture clash are definitely predominant, ‘though I recently put together a list of my ten favorite fish-out-of-water movies, a kind of culture clash flick, and if there are too many Asian American films about it, that’s just because there are too many films about it.

      Tangent: Here’s my list.

      10 best fish-out-of-water movies

      1. Splash (Daryl Hannah, 1984). A literal fish out of water!
      2. Noelle (Anna Kendrick, 2019). Santa’s daughter visits Phoenix.
      3. Back to the Future (Michael J. Fox, 1985). Teen from the 80s visits the 50s.
      4. Blast from the Past (Brendan Fraser, 1999). Man from the 60s emerges from underground shelter into the 21st Century.
      5. Legally Blonde (Reese Witherspoon, 2001). Fashion merchandising major goes to Harvard Law School.
      6. Miss Congeniality (Sandra Bullock, 2000). Tomboy FBI agent enters beauty pageant.
      7. Encino Man (Brendan Fraser, 1992). Frozen caveman thaws out in the early 90s.
      8. Enchanted (Amy Adams, 2007). Animated fairy tale princess gets lost in real-world New York City.
      9. Starman (Jeff Bridges, 1985). Romantic spaceman visits earth.
      10. Coming to America (Eddie Murphy, 1988). African prince in the U.S.A.

      The main character in White on Rice isn’t Asian American. He’s Japanese. The Lynn Chen character is Asian American, and she’s great, but see this movie because it’s funny, not because it’s a good model of Asian American cinema.

      You’re better off, I think, with Happy Cleaners, although that’s still an Asian American generations movie. And not easy to track down. I’ve already recommended Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and The Big Sick, but let me see what else I can come up with.

      I haven’t seen those Surrogate Valentine films but I’m glad you like them. I’m trying to be a Lynn Chen completist. She’s on Grey’s Anatomy this season so I think I’m going to have to start watching that.

      I know when you evaluate movies you care mostly about the actual stuff in the movie, and that’s fair. But Crazy Rich Asians is a hugely important movie because it’s a big-budget Hollywood movie with an Asian American director. It is the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Chinese descent in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. 25 years. Inexcusable. Hollywood is still learning that representation matters, and that representation for its own sake isn’t the only reason to put movies in Asian Americans’ hands. The film did $238.5 million at the box office against a $30 million budget.

      It put Michelle Yeoh, among other Asian greats, in a mainstream American movie. Its soundtrack was almost entirely recorded by Asian musicians, including Asian American musicians. And Kina Grannis (whom I mention in that conversation we had about listening to the lyrics on first hearing an album) is the singer at the wedding, singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” An Asian American indie artist playing a cool part in a mainstream pic.

      Yeah, I don’t love the movie either. But man I hope this is a step.

      I do recommend the novel, though, as well as its immediate sequel. It’s not Toni Morrison, but it’s fun, interesting reading. And (like the film) it makes me want to go to Singapore and eat everything in sight.

    2. Rachel is a far cry from Asian American portrayals in films in earlier decades. She’s a college professor. Of game theory.

      “Far cry” seems a little strong.

      The themes of culture and culture clash are definitely predominant,… if there are too many Asian American films about it, that’s just because there are too many films about it.

      I think this only works if you include fish-out-of-water stories that aren’t about a culture-clash. I would guess that if you look at films with predominantly white or black cast, the ratio of culture-clash stories to all other types of stories would be way smaller. I think the fact that culture and culture clashes are often prominent themes in Hollywood Asian-American films suggests Hollywood and America writ large still views Asian-Americans as foreigners or at least not completely American.

      Yeah, I don’t love the movie either. But man I hope this is a step.

      I totally agree, and I also agree that there factors outside the film itself that are important.

      You’re better off, I think, with Happy Cleaners, although that’s still an Asian American generations movie. And not easy to track down. I’ve already recommended Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and The Big Sick, but let me see what else I can come up with.

      I really enjoyed The Big Sick (to my surprise). I can’t get motivated enough to see Harold and Kumar, though. And I’ll try to see Happy Cleaners and White on Rice.

      Let me know what you think of the Surrogate Valentine films. There’s one particular direction I wish the second and third films took, and I would like to hear if you agree.

      1. “Far cry” may seem strong, but she’s a long way from being:

        • Exoticized. In fact she’s the opposite. Pretty but not gorgeous, and about as American-looking as a fully Asian woman can look.
        • Fetishized, the object of cinematic yellow fever.
        • A clown, like Long Duk Dong in Gung Ho or Arnold in Happy Days.
        • The non-threatening best friend of the female lead. That would be Awkwafina in this movie. In fact, she can’t be the non-threatening best friend of the female lead because she is the lead. Name another mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy (or any genre) with an Asian female lead.
        • A doctor or nurse.
        • A nerd or geek.
        • A tech expert.

        She’s a normal, educated American woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances — like almost any other female lead in an American mainstream movie.

    3. She’s not exotic in a sexually seductive way, but her girlish look feels like something that could fit as an Asian female stereotype–namely, the perception that adult Asian females are more like well-mannered girls, that mature, capable women that should be taken seriously. She also speakings Chinese, which is not typical of the girl-next-door type that she seems to represent.

      And while she’s not in tech or medicine, she’s an econ professor–she’s well educated. That’s not so far from the stereotype in my view.

      But I’ll end with this: “long way” and “far cry” are all relative, and maybe I’m being too nitpicky.

  8. Minding the Gap (2018)
    Dir. Bing Liu
    73/100

    This is a documentary–almost a home movie following three friends–racially, White, Black, and Asian. (The Asian is the director Liu.) My sense is that Liu shot footage of his skateboarding friends, but at some point discovered one common theme among them–namely, a rough childhood, which involved physical abuse or corporal punishment. (Actually, there is a fourth person, a female, involved as well, who also has a similar experience.)

    ***
    I felt like finding a resolution to this film was not easy, but Liu largely succeeds in my view. The climax involving heartfelt words by Zack and Liu’s mother were touching, especially the latter. Liu interviews his mother, and at a certain point I wondered why she agreed to be interviewed. She is definitely put in a very difficult situation. But by the end, she seems to have done this purely out of love for her son, hoping that what she says will somehow free him of the pain from his past. It’s a beautiful moment.

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