Sunday, October 6, 2013

Asian Evasion



Hey! Just saw this video by Totally Biased, featuring Kevin Kataoka, about Hollywood's evasion of Asian actors in starring roles. This is a huge problem that I've certainly wanted to talk about more on this blog. Now it's certainly true that Asians get stiffed casting-wise in Hollywood in general. As Kataoka explains, even films that take place in an Asian setting will almost always star a white guy. This is true and this is frustrating.

Tom Cruise as the last white samurai. 
Now you can make the argument "if the story is based on real events or is an adaptation of a story wherein the protagonist is indeed a white person, then to preserve the accuracy of the original we must have a white actor." I actually agree with that argument, but the problem here is the stories that Hollywood chooses to tell. Looking at the majority of Hollywood films that deal with Asia or Asian themes, it is obvious that Hollywood has a tendency to be partial to stories featuring Caucasians, with the Asian characters -- the natives of the setting -- often taking a back seat. The best example I can think of is The Last Samurai. While I can't say The Last Samurai was not compelling or even a bad film, I certainly found it odd that the screenplay inserted a fictitious Caucasian character -- and an American one at that (in the form of Tom Cruise) -- into real historical situations such as the Meiji restoration. As if a group of military Luddites rising up against a new regime that would essentially render them obsolete would not be compelling enough, the brilliant minds of Hollywood thought it necessary to insert a white American into the mix.

Remember all those white actors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Me neither.
The question is, I suppose, is this actually necessary? Are white North American moviegoers so self-absorbed that they can't bring themselves to be interested in films in which a member of their ethnicity does not fill the role of the main character? Is human drama itself not compelling enough? Well, I'm not sure about that, but I do know that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won several Oscars and was a runaway hit in North America and around the world. I know that Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle became a modern cult classic when it was released on DVD. And I know that Memoirs of a Geisha, though a rather problematic production, did very well at the box office, and I know that Slum Dog Millionaire was a smashing success. What did these films all have in common? They were successful in North America -- some very much so -- and all featured ethnically Asian leads. So yes, it would seem that there is a market for films that don't star white people. But even in these cases a lot of the Asian actors used were "imported" from foreign film markets. In fact, only one of the films I've mentioned has specifically Asian-American leads.
I remember thinking when it came out that this movie was going to be full of awful Asian stereotypes, and I avoided it out of fear of that. Big mistake. Now it's one of my favourite movies. 
Now maybe you're thinking Asian-Americans are just a bunch of butt-hurt complainers about all this. Mabye you might use some of the films I mentioned above as examples of how sometimes Asians do get lead roles, and everyone should just chill out about the whole thing. But ask yourself this: how many current famous A-list celebrities can you name who are Asian-American . . .  No, no, no! Not Asian but Asian-American, as in ethnically Asian people who were born in North America or immigrated here. Let's see . . . Lucy Liu . . . John Cho . . . err . . . Kal Pen? Is he still acting? Sandra Oh? Um . . .  half the cast of Hawaii Five-0? How about the music industry? Well, Far East Movement made that one song about G6's or something, and there's that girl in the Pussycat Dolls who looks like she's Indian or something . . . but other than that . . . huh. Now take whatever number you came to and compare it to the number of famous white or black actors and musicians in mainstream media. Quite telling, isn't it?

Whether or not you like Far East Movement, they were one of the few Asian-American acts to receive widespread mainstream success. Why is that so unusual!? 
Let me offer a hypothetical situation. Say you'r an Asian-American actor and you catch wind of an American production that is supposed to take place in New York's Chinatown. The story is about the struggle of mainland Chinese immigrants acclimatizing to American life or some such thing. It's all about cultural identity and is meant to be a portrait of the cultural enclave that houses these people. It's about their struggle! Say you're naive and you're like, "That could be cool. I should ask my agent about casting calls for that one." But then you find out that it's all told through the eyes of the main character, who is a white beat cop who patrols the area and lives there with his family, and most of the scenes revolve around this white family that's been inserted into Chinatown and deals more with how they perceive the place than anything else. You'd probably be pretty frustrated.

Finishing the Game, a satirical look at the studio completion of Bruce Lee's Game of Death, deals a lot with movie casting and ethnic stereotyping.
The immigrants themselves, who make up the majority of Chinatown inhabitants in real life, have been pushed into the background in favour of a "fish out of water" main character who likely wouldn't have all that much to do with Chinatown in the first place. For you, the Asian-American actor, it's like a culturally insensitive slap in the face. The story would likely have been much more plausible and realistic if it had revolved around an ethnically Chinese character, and that's one less opportunity you have to get a paycheque in an already woefully exclusive market. Shit. Also, do we really need another one of those white-guy-in-predominantly-Asian-setting movies?

This was a two-part Canadian miniseries that revolved around Chinese gangsters in Vancouver, in which the main character was Asian American (or Canadian, I suppose) and was married to a Caucasian woman. It actually dealt with a few of the issues I've included in my hypothetical film, and it was pretty damn good.  
Wouldn't the story be even more interesting if the main character was a Chinese-American guy from Milwaukee who can't speak Chinese all that well and is out of touch with his roots, so to speak? Let's say this guy has to deal with first-generation locals who, based on his appearance, assume he's culturally Chinese and then get frustrated when they realize he's more American than Chinese, while he must combat stereotyping by his non-Asian-American colleagues -- which causes him to wrestle with notions of self-identity, etc. (which is something he's been doing all his life anyway, from growing up with predominantly non-Asian-American friends). By the end of the movie some of the audience realize, "Holy crap! People from Asia and Asian-Americans ARE different! I had no idea!" I would pay to see THAT movie.

Toronto's Reel Asian International Film Festival showcases films produced in Asia as well as a wealth of Asian-American and Asian-Canadian productions. Wouldn't it be neat if more of these sorts of films entered the North American mainstream? 
We are living in an age when multiculturalism is the talk of the town. North America's non-white demographics are constantly growing and are increasingly making up more of the movie-going public -- and no, I don't think that's a bad thing. Also, the age of globalization is bringing to light a lot of questions and discussions about the significance of culture that have not previously been explored. Canada and the United States specifically are quite unique places, in that people from around the world have and continue to immigrate here for myriad reasons, bringing their cultural elements and nuances with them. Indeed, our countries are lands of immigrants. I often view film as being a representation of a country's culture, but North American culture is constantly changing, and our film culture, I feel, has not changed with it.

My theory? Hollywood is a business. They care predominantly about capital and as such stick to formulas that will likely make money. In other words, they don't like taking chances on investments. While I can certainly understand the mentality behind this, I feel it's led to a sort of cultural stagnation within Hollywood, breeding producers and marketers who are out of touch with the ever-changing demographics and sensibilities of Americans (and Canadians). Perhaps think about it this way: it took them decades to realize that you could have a black protagonist and still have a marketable product. My guess is that Asian Americans will have to wait a similar amount of time to become "viable" as lead roles. This is, of course, extremely shitty, and the sooner our mainstream film industries become as dynamic as the societies they are attempting to portray, the better.  

That's my two cents on the matter.

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