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Finding New Faces in Today’s Films

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Can anyone tell me the last time you remember an Asian actor or actress taking the starring role in a film?

Let me rephrase that. Can anyone tell me the last time you remember seeing an Asian actor or actress in starring role who wasn’t playing a martial arts cop (See: Jackie Chan), or a beautiful, but deadly assassin (See: Lucy Liu).

Chances are that you can’t, because I had a hard time naming one. But I’m left wondering if the public thinks that’s a problem. One of the reasons studios don’t take a chance on Asian actors and actresses is that they are afraid a film will lose its pull on the audience because they won’t feel comfortable with a leading role being headed up by someone like Jackie Chan or Jet Li if it isn’t Romeo Must Rumble In the Bronx II.

I’ll admit that when I see a movie that isn’t headlined by someone I think is an A-list actor I automatically don’t feel compelled to really see that movie. Let’s face the facts: big name superstars drive us to the movies as much as the movies themselves. Who wants to see Ming Na as the leading actress when you could have someone who will drive people to the theatres like a Nicole Kidman or a Jessica Alba?

Here’s another interesting question: do you know who Ming Na is?

She was actually the starring actress in the Joy Luck Club, an asian centered drama based on the best-selling book by Amy Tan. She was also a recurring character on ER and is in a new series on NBC called Inconceivable where she plays the lead character.

Two points for you if you knew all of that.

Which interestingly means that I only get one point, because I didn’t know all of that either. And so I sit here wondering, “Why not?” Have I been sucked into this Hollywood vacuum where I see shades of white and black, but often times nothing in between or a little off the spectrum?

Another problem with these scenarios is that parts aren’t being written with asian actors and actresses in mind. Ming Na is a very competent actress, but you can’t plug her into the role of Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain. After all, Kidman was playing a Southern Belle in the middle of the Civil War. For some reason I think the writers would have a difficult time writing Ming Na into that one.

Are parts being written for asian actors and actresses? Maybe the bigger question is whether the public WANTS to see movies with asian stars in it that don’t involve huge sword battles or warriors flying through the air. What about a romantic comedy or a drama starring a leading asian man or woman? Would it work?

One problem I think I have sometimes is that the relationship dynamics of an asian actor with another actor who isn’t asian. Would a romance between Russell Wong and Jessica Alba in a movie be believable? Why can’t Russell Wong be Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four (aside from the fact that Mr. Fantastic is a white character…but that never stopped comic book movies before. I could have sworn the King Pin was white also, but Michael Clark Duncan changed that)?

I just don’t think the audience would buy it, and the main reason being is that they aren’t used to seeing it. And it doesn’t help when Hollywood does put two of them together and it just doesn’t work. Lucy Lu and Antonio Banderas? Seriously?

This phenomenon, if you can call it that, isn’t limited to the Asian-American population. Black actors and actresses suffered from the same sort of problem in the last century. Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for best Male actor in 1963 for his role in Lillies of the Field, yet it would probably be another 20-30 years before we saw black actors and actresses getting mainstream attention for their roles in major Hollywood productions. And we’re still waiting on getting more black producers, directors and other roles in Hollywood.

It’s definitely slow going, but I think there was a push from the public that, yes, we accept black actors and actresses as leading characters and we want to see them. Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Wesley Snipes are all leading role getters that we accept and go watch. How long until we see the same treatment for Asian-Americans?

In the end, I don’t think it’s just film and television where this lack of attention for Asian-Americans can be found. It’s also easy to find in mainstream sports as well. All of the well known Asian athletes all have some sort of gimmick that lets you remember them. Yao Ming, center for the Houston Rockets, is a 7’5’’ giant. The fact that he’s 7’5’’ is an easy reminder of who he is, but the fact that he’s about two feet taller than your average asian person makes it even easier. Michelle Wie, a 15 year old golfer from Hawaii, gets a ton of attention because of her age and her propensity for ignoring the LPGA and continuing to try to make the cut on the men’s tour.

But what about all of the unknown athletes who are also very good but get no recognition because they don’t have a gimmick? Dat Nguyen, middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, is known for his hard work and hustle on the field. I don’t remember too many deodorant commercials coming Dat’s way. What about Ichiro Suziki, arguably one of the best hitters in baseball today and one of the most talented and gifted fielders, yet he won’t get a headline on a newspaper unless the man hit .500 for the season or finished a game hitting for TWO cycles. Yes, it would take that much. Hell, even Sammy Sosa would get a headline if he hit .300 for a season. Maybe Ichiro should try hopping up and down when he hits a single.

I know things will change eventually, because there’s too much talent in the Asian community to be lost in our mainstream media forever. There’s also too much talent in the Hispanic community and Black community to not allow them to progress either. This, like all other things culturally related in our country, will just take time or maybe a firm push on our parts to show the media what we really want to see – diversity.

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  • bella

    i want to become a famous filmstar am an mongolian asian in uk 14 turning 15. n i don’t know now if i even have a chance now in the acting industry cause of my ethinicity but i really wanna do this like get cool roles a lot of my white friends n everyone like some nurses in a hospital lol have said am stunning or very beautiful plus i was the only one who got a certificate for being the best actress in the p7 school play from the head teacher. but i truly believe we could move into getting asians to have starring roles in movies. btw you can’t compare america with hong kong and stuff cuz america has many ethinicities innit n many of the a list celebs have asian blood like cate blanchett.
    please wish me luck n pray for me please all of my asian brothers n sisters cuz we need as many of us to break into it!!.

  • JR

    Aaman: Why do people not include Indians when they use the term Asians hereabouts?

    1) Indians are essentially caucasian.
    2) Until recently, South Asians have been a small minority in the U.S., and as such have been lumped in with Middle Easterners.

  • JRS

    I will be VERY happy to see Dat Nguyen get some endorsement deals!


  • Randy P/Tube

    Nice post, TAM. Sorry for the typo above.

  • Randy P/Tube

    Nice post, Tan. On another issue, why is it that Filipino Americans have to play parts that are not specifically Filipino? Why does Ernie Reyes have to play a Japanese boy? Why can’t Lea Salonga get a part written for a Filipino American instead of “Miss Saigon”? Why is Jasmine Trias from American Idol 2004 referred to as “Hawaiian” instead of “Filipino American”?I guess Hollywood doesn’t know about Filipinos or Korean Americans or Thai Americans. Are Filipinos even Asian (That is another post.)? It’s part of the long battle for Asian Americans to gain mainstream acting parts. (Yes, I am Filipino American)

  • Duane gets points for knowing more obscure parts that the beautiful Ming Na has been in. 🙂

    Joy Luck Club was more of a drama than a chick flick, at least I thought it was. The book was very good, I would recommend reading that rather than seeing the movie for a better idea of what Amy Tan was trying to get across to the audience, but the movie is also ok.

    I live in the Bay Area here in California, and so there are many Asian men and women who are actors and actresses. I was really excited at first when I noticed this a few years ago, but now its just sort of a regular thing now and I dont notice that, “Oh, she’s asian and she’s on TV as an anchor.” I think there has been more in-roads on a more national scale with asian women as anchors on CNN or Fox News, and there are a few asian anchors on ESPN as well. I think its a great step forward. Connie Chung would be the obvious example to use, although she’s been in the business for a long time now.

    I think a lot of the Japanese horror movies have become increasingly popular because they are a lot different from the horror films produced here in the States. The Japanese films tend to take it to another level and use different tactics to scare the audience, which appeals to american viewers. But a lot of the conversions (The Ring, The Grudge, etc.) have not translated as well as their original counterparts, one because they are a bit watered down in my opinion. What would be more interesting for me is if they just re-released the original horror movie with the asian cast and just put subtitles in. I wonder how the audience would respond, rather than re-shooting and re-casting the movie with Sarah Michelle Gellar.

    And Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was an already highly acclaimed film before it was ever shown in the US, so I’m not surprised it did well. It was also hyped out of this world, so if it didn’t do well I would have been very surprised. The movie itself was very good with beautiful cinematography and generally well likeable characters. I think it was a big plus in the direction of movies featuring asian characters that were accepted by an ameerican audience, although it was set in an asian background (so what else would they expect).

  • Duane

    Ming Na played one of the friends in that TV show “The Single Guy.” A real babe. I liked that character. She was the girlfriend of the curly-haired blond guy who was the single guy’s best buddy.

    I want some points.

    Didn’t see Joy Luck Club. Isn’t that a chick flick?

    I wouldn’t mind seeing Tamlyn Tomita show up in more movies.

    Care to comment on the success that Asian women have had in the news broadcasting biz?

    What do you make of America’s fascination with Japanese horror movies? The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?

  • Man, Mike beat me to mentioning Harold and Kumar go to White Castle by a minute! 😛

    And Mike makes a lot of good points about some of the other asian actors and actresses in televison. The only thing I would say about that is I think television and movies, while similiar, don’t represent the same amount of difficulty if we’re talking about landing a part. I think it’s less risky for a televison network to put out a show with asian actors/actresses in leading roles than a movie director putting a similiar actor into a leading movie role.

  • I agree it would be difficult for the audience to flex its “muscle” in this case, but I think we definitely have some power in this situation. After all, we’re the ones putting down 10.50 to go see a feature film. We decide where we want to spend that money.

    And the biggest problem is, and you mentioned it and I alluded to it in the article, that how can we use our money when there are no movies with interesting characters and a great storyline starring asian actors and actresses? I think you make a great point about the indie films. I was watching a piece on the Sundance film festival and a film made by an asian director starring mostly asian actors was spotlighted. I think it would take one of those indie films to sort of “break out” to open the flood gates, so to speak, if any major change were to happen.

    The movie, “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle,” is a great example of a movie that stars two asian actors and goes against the traditional grain. Of course, it’s a teen movie comedy in the same vein as American Pie, but it was refreshing.

  • I can’t believe no one in this post or thread has mentioned “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Very good actors and sorta funny movie.

    What about “Lost?” With Daniel Dae Kim (who says his kiss on that show was the first onscreen kiss he’s had in his career! And the Korean actress (whose name I’m drawing a blank on at this hour), who happens to speak flawless English in real life. Both very good actors.

    Sandra Oh, of “Sideways” and “Grey’s Anatomy?” She’s got sex scenes!

    Parminder Nagra, also of ER?

    On the other part of this post, I prefer casts where I don’t recognise the faces because then I can lose myself in the story without the distraction of “Hey, those are Nicole Kidman’s tits!” 😉

  • NJ

    Interesting Article. It seems like I have been reading about this subject for several years now…..

    No, I would not believe a movie which featured a relationship between Jessica Alba and Russel Wong, but it is because of the age difference. They don’t seem like a good fit. But with a younger Asian male for her or a more age appropriate female for Russell Wong, absolutely.

    Its a shame one has to even point out what ethnicities are in film. The story is what’s most important. Even more important than featuring Asians or Hispanics or African Americans. I feel like the little funky independent films have gotten a lot of press in the last few years and featuring Asian characters in this type of film might lend itself to making the filmgoing public more “used to” seeing Asians as feature characters in movies.

    Bottom line is, what does the average person do to let the powers that be know that we would like to see more diversity in film? If the movies aren’t out there to see, how can we not vote with our money? Are there groups of “influential or capable” Asian artists that can band together and produce or search out talented writers and make their own material?
    Just my humble opinion, but would like to see things come about.

  • I haven’t read everying here, but I would like to mention an underrated AMerican film with an Asian cast, Better Luck Tomorrow, excellent film. The director Justin Lin, from Taiwan, has been tagged to direct the US remake of Oldboy, plus Fats and Furious 3.

  • ::Why do people not include Indians when they use the term Asians hereabouts?::

    I agree that we should be including Indians in the same group. The fact that we seperate them I think is primarily an american thing since we tend to group people by the way they look rather than where they come from geographically. I make that mistake also and I apologize if that insults anyone. I wonder, do people of Indian descent normally resent not being lumped in with “Asians” or do they prefer to be seperate? Does it depend on the individual?

    ::The majority of Americans don’t care to see an Asian face in a leading role that isn’t stereotypical; the same for the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese. As such, the studios/filmmakers cater to their audience. When was the last time you went to a theater and saw a sea of Asian faces staring back at you? You don’t.::

    Exactly. That’s why I wrote early in the piece, “But I’m left wondering if the public thinks that’s a problem [in reference to not seeing Asian-americans in starring film roles].” I absolutely agree that if the audience doesn’t ask for movies involving Asians or starring Asian actors/actresses that we won’t see them. But I also think part of the problem with this is that the public isn’t comfortable with the idea of an Asian star. I mean, this is sort of the point I was trying to get across in the article but I don’t think I made clear. Is the public just not interested in seeing Asian-Americans in starring roles (other than martial arts/action flicks) or are they just not used to seeing it so they don’t know what it would be like?

    The reason I brought up the whole Black actors/actresses moving up in the last 20-30 years of film was that I think they were in sort of a similiar situation in the 1950’s-60’s. I mean, how many people were clamoring for more black stars during the Civil rights movement? But I think we, as an audience, became used to seeing them as a part of the cultural makeup of society and got comfortable seeing them on the big screen in large roles. I wonder if the same can happen for Asians.

    ::I’m also not sure why you dismiss any Asian people starring in stereotypical roles. ::

    I’m not dismissing them, I was just sort of using that as a satirical release. I think the Jackie Chan’s and Jet Li’s do a great job and have done a lot to help the Asian-Americans work their way into mainstream media with their films and fame. But I don’t feel it’s necessary to pigeon hole Asians (or any other ethnicity) to a certain stereotype or genre.

    ::Is it just that you would like to see more Asian people in the comedy and drama genres?::

    Not necessarily, although I don’t see why an Asian actor/actress couldn’t star in a series drama. Ming Na, someone I mentioned multiple times, did a great job in Joy Luck Club (a film I think did not justice to the original book, but eh) and was one of my favorite characters on ER. And that wasn’t because she was asian or that she played a stereotypical asian character (ambitious, hard working asian trying to please her parents), but I thought she was genuinely believable in a drama series.

    Now why couldn’t we put an Asian star in a comedy? The only one I can remember off the top of my head is Margaret Cho, who’s standup basically makes fun of her asian upbringing in America, and whose TV show was basically a stereotypical asian family growing up in America. I think if someone of Asian descent wanted make serious in-roads into comedy and open the doors for others, they would need to get away from the whole upbringing angle. I mean, how many times does an audience want to hear about how your parents think its bad luck to sleep with a pillow because of chinese demons or doing weird impersonations of your stereotypical asian mother with an over the top asian accent? I think it’s all about making the audience and public used to seeing Asian-americans in roles and situations they are not used to seeing us in.

    And why not dramas? The last drama I saw a whole lot of Asians in (and I’m not sure if you’d classify it as a drama) was The Last Samurai, and hell, only one of the Asian actors spoke a word of English the entire movie. But that one guy was Ken Watanabe, who I thought did a wonderful job and outshined Cruise.

  • I’m not sure what you mean, Tan.

  • “Don’t you think that most actors of other races are in relatively stereotypical roles?”

    That might have to do with the actors doing a stereotypical role for the sake of doing a film and trying to make it big.

  • Jackie Chan’s pretty darned funny. And Ming Na Wen is pretty dramatic.

  • Maybe he means Asians are more funny and/or dramatic

  • 2 of my favourite films are “foriegn” to me and could’t name an actor from either of them, City of God (Brazil) and Battle Royale (Japan). It doesnt bother me that they don’t feature any “Hollywood” stars, as long as i enjoy the film. Maybe thats just cos i’m not american and don’t care for celebrities!

  • I’d be interesting in knowing how many people of any race one sees starring in films. It seems that the major studios tend to draw from a relatively small pool of “talent” (I use the word loosely) as it is.

    I’m also not sure why you dismiss any Asian people starring in stereotypical roles. Don’t you think that most actors of other races are in relatively stereotypical roles? Not many people of any race jump from one genre to another.

    Is it just that you would like to see more Asian people in the comedy and drama genres?

  • Sam

    Very good points, but the same reason there’s no real good parts for Asians in a role other than a martial artist or deadly assassin or any of your typical “Asian roles” is the same reason there isn’t a Caucasian leading man/woman in a Hong Kong or Korean or Japanese movie, unless they were playing a hooker, prostitute, American soldier, etc. The majority of Americans don’t care to see an Asian face in a leading role that isn’t stereotypical; the same for the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese. As such, the studios/filmmakers cater to their audience. When was the last time you went to a theater and saw a sea of Asian faces staring back at you? You don’t. You see young, WHITE faces staring back. That’s why American films are filled with young, WHITE faces. It’s also the reason you never see a white guy in a starring role in a Hong Kong movie. Because the people who will watch it are all Chinese. They want their own as the lead.

    It’s obvious. Those who decry Hollywood for not offering minorities (unless they’re Denzel Washington or Halle Berry) good roles doesn’t want to really hear the ansewr.

  • Why do people not include Indians when they use the term Asians hereabouts?

  • I think there are a few Asians in the NHL too.