Is Hollywood Giving Asian Men More Love?

December 6, 2007

Is Hollywood Giving Asian Men More Love?

By: Philip W. Chung, Oct 22, 2007

Tags: Reel Stories, Arts & Entertainment |

willyunlee.jpg

I caught the second episode of NBC’s revamped The Bionic Woman on Wednesday night, and Korean American actor Will Yun Lee plays Jae Kim, one bad ass mofo. He gets to kick ass, has an interesting back-story, is clearly an American character so no accent or other FOB characteristics and, rarest of all, gets to play a fully realized sexual being.

Kim pines for his ex-wife, played by blond Battlestar Galactica hottie Katee Sackhoff, who also happens to be the original evil bionic woman whom Kim had to “kill.” In the episode I saw, the two even got their own love scene.


Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a character like this on prime-time network TV. But along with characters played by Daniel Dae Kim of Lost (to be joined this season by The Sopranos’ Ken Leung); B.D. Wong of Law & Order: SVU; Kal Penn of House; Masi Oka, Sendhil Ramamurthy and James Kyson Lee of Heroes, and even Rex Lee of HBO’s Entourage, not only are there more Asian male faces, but also three-dimensional characters who are more than token window dressing.

Mainstream film may be slower in showing love to the brothers, but there are small signs of progress — Kal Penn and John Cho will return next year in the Harold and Kumar sequel, and director Justin Lin seems determined to single-handedly change Hollywood’s perception of Asian men with films like Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and his latest, Finishing the Game.

But is there a genuine shift taking place, or is this just a blip that will soon be forgotten?

Two decades ago, a young Vietnamese American actor named Dustin Nguyen burst onto the scene playing an undercover detective on the TV series 21 Jump Street. Nguyen’s character was just one of the guys and got to catch the baddies alongside his fellow heartthrobs, including a young Johnny Depp.

That experience has made Nguyen sensitive to how Hollywood has portrayed APA males over the years.

“Have things changed? Well, you can’t ignore shows like Lost or Heroes that have a very intelligent treatment of Asian males,” says Nguyen, who also stars in Finishing the Game. “But I wonder how much improvement in terms of quality there has been for Asian American males.”

Let’s not forget that in the 1960s Hollywood gave a shot to men like James Shigeta, who played the romantic lead in films like The Crimson Kimono and Flower Drum Song, and George Takei on Star Trek. However, those turned out to be just temporary blips on the road to business-as-usual.

But there are reasons why we might look at our current situation with guarded optimism.

If a genuine shift for the positive does occur, I think future historians will look at both Lost and Heroes as watershed moments. Not only were both shows major hits and pop culture phenomena, but their Asian male characters have become memorable, break-out presences who have made an impact on all viewers. I doubt NBC would have allowed The Bionic Woman’s producers to make Lee’s character an Asian American male had they not seen the success of similar characters on those previous shows. If these characters and shows continue to succeed, you can bet that the powers that be will be more open to do the same.

On the film front, I know of at least a dozen Hollywood projects in development featuring prominent Asian or APA male characters in non-stereotypical roles.

Whether these films ever get made and have an impact remains to be seen. But I think the best bets are our own Justin Lins. Just as Spike Lee almost single-handedly spawned a new wave of African American filmmakers and actors, all we need is that one guy to lead the way.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble.

Comments

  1. I agree, we, API s are lacking the full representation in motion picture, music, entertainment, sport, media, publishing, politic/public sectors, etc.

    We must push to enter into the non-traditional roles and businesses. They are higher profit margin, higher respect, more power, and more attention. Why not?

    I don’t see any reason we should be reserved in this matter. Each of us must have that buring fire in our heart, to make things happen, to take back the glory, to steal back the marketshare now enjoyed by mainstream America and other minorities.

    We must have a vision, goals, and actions. No matter what you do in any profession. Take it to the top, give back, and share your wealth. You will last a long way. Don’t look back, don’t think traditional, but never imaged before!

    –EL on Oct 22, 2007

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    EL
    Posted October 22, 2007 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

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  2. Guys:
    I have serious doubts that things have really changed, other than the fact that Philip W. Chung is a distinct and solid addition to AsianWeek correspondents.
    It isn’t that the male Asian actors who have managed to get past the casting coucnes are wanting, or that the roles cited are less than valid.
    The sad fact is that the mass “audience” will never be there so long as the Great Unwashed continue to be regaled and regimented into the narrow confines of the stereotypical Pavlov-dog response to ANYthing.
    I refer you to the year Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” made it onstage to the er, ah “Oscars.”
    Were they not “Asian,” both John Lone AND Joan Chen should have been “nominated” along with the director.
    Others as well.
    But this is Gollywood, and unless you can afford agent, press agent AND personal manager, rotsa ruck, kiddo.
    Mr. Chung has already reached the understanding that showbiz is ONE TOUGH NUT. Not only to “crack,”
    but, more importantly, to place in perspective.
    I note that James Franco? is involved with Justin Lin’s latest foray into tbe muddy trenches. Now, there’s a non-Asian actor to contemplate. His James Dean outfoxed the original.
    No, guys, the proof in this pudding is, likely, less than obvious and more than disregarded.
    Stick by your guns, do your damnedest, and damn the pufflicity torpedoes.
    And I hope you can make a living doing so.
    Frank Eng

    –Frank Eng on Oct 22, 2007

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    Frank Eng
    Posted October 22, 2007 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

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  3. Frank, always appreciate your insightful comments regarding my columns and elsewhere. Thanks for the feedback.

    –Phil Chung on Oct 23, 2007

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    Phil Chung
    Posted October 23, 2007 at 12:13 am | Permalink

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  4. It’s a fact that in every Anglo-Saxon society around the world, be it the U.S., Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, or Australia, Asian men are systematically placed at the bottom of the sexual totem pole.

    At the same time, black men are placed at the top of the ladder right below white men, in a desperate attempt to alleviate white guilt and appear “open-minded and tolerant.”

    So have we progressed?

    The answer is no if you compare it to the utter adolation and sacred cow status reserved for African-Americans in television and Hollywood vs. the scraps from the table thrown to guys like John Cho and Will Yun Lee.

    The problem goes far deeper than media casting. I believe an inherent bias instilled within Anglo-Saxon males to disrespect, malign, and assault the manhood of Asian men.

    –Gabe on Nov 15, 2007

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    Gabe
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

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  5. Enjoyed the insights of the article and comments, as an 18 year old asian male and a struggling actor there is no doubt that type casting will always be present, that is the nature of the beast!… has there been progression?, yes do i believe it will continue ? certainly! When it comes down to it the fact is that acting and show biz is a field where anything can happen, and thats the risk every actor takes. We all want to be hollywood and yearn for our faces to touch the silver screen. Secondly, I strongly believe that talent will get you places no matter the circumstance, wheter your asian, latino, black or white, talent can never be overlooked or neglected. Listen gentleman, the problem is present and theres no denying but actions speak louder than words. I hope I can play part to shifting this ridiculous notion and shine a positive light. One person can make a difference. So lets just do it; whoever you or wherever you are if you have this dream get it done don’t hold back let your face be known and carry a strong heart. Only time will tell.

    –Danny Hyon on Nov 24, 2007

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    Danny Hyon
    Posted November 24, 2007 at 12:20 am | Permalink

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