We need more balance in Asian American media

by doorhalfopen

John Cho is one of the most successful Asian American actors of the past decade and a half. He’s starred in a few high-grossing films, such as Star Trek and the Harold & Kumar series. and he’s one of the few AA actors who are known by general audiences. If not by name, people can see him and remember his face from other movies. As far as Asian American actors go, he’s done a great job proving that it’s not a bad idea to cast him regardless of the character’s race (or as little regard as currently possible, at least).

Recently he gave a talk at Yale about his career, and how he tied it to his heritage. He has been careful in choosing his roles, much like we learned about Harry Shum Jr., so that he doesn’t have any embarrassing, stereotypical roles under his name. His resume is very respectable compared to many of his peers. There’s not much of “selling out” to make a quick buck. While it’s not easy to be an actor looking for their big break, much less an AA actor, John Cho is one good example that you can succeed while remaining respectful and proud of your heritage.

There is higher demand…in some ways

One part of his talk that particularly stood out at me was highlighted in the article:

Since he began acting, Cho said the “demand” for Asian-American actors has changed as the entertainment industry has recognized the “purchasing power” of Asian-Americans. He added that he has noticed many more Asian-Americans on television — particularly in commercials — than before.

It’s one thing for us to feel this and to blog about it. John Cho has lived and worked through the industry’s changes in the past 15 years. When he says it’s getting better, I think it’s safe to say that AA actors are making progress. The reason, according to him, is because there is money to be made. It shouldn’t be surprising that the entertainment industry, like any other, is driven by profit. Companies are increasingly aware that Asian Americans might pay for things if they market toward us. Especially if your commercials and films cast actors who we can actually relate to.

So it appears things are looking up, and the reason is financial. This is in contrast with what Justin Lin wrote just a couple of years ago about Asian American films in general. In his blog entry, Justin received rather discouraging words from a veteran AA producer. The issue was that Justin has been one of the leaders in the AA filming community, insisting on making indie AA films even though he’s proven to be capable of directing multiple box office hits. Is it really worth his time to work on projects that won’t establish him as a sure-bet moneymaking machine?

“It’s a young man’s game,” a filmmaker once told me about Asian American films, “it’s fun to talk about representin’ and stuff until you get a mortgage.” And as a business it definitely makes no sense. Here are the facts: there’s no defined audience and the numbers just are not there. Also, very rarely do Asian American films get picked up for traditional distribution (pipeline including theatrical, home video, VOD, cable, etc.) which is still the standard of measure for any film. And because of that, there hasn’t been enough Asian American films deemed profitable to establish a pattern for a business plan. Whether we like it or not, a thriving business will inevitably be connected to any thriving cinema.

If you’re not aware, Justin Lin and John Cho worked together years ago in Better Luck Tomorrow. Eight to ten years later they have about opposing views on Asian American demand for entertainment. From the director’s perspective, it feels a bit futile to focus on representing Asian Americans. This is because very few people outside of the AA community would be interested in films about our stories and issues.

It won’t matter if it’s a good film. For example, In the Family is a recent AA film that has been well-received, even getting a very positive review from Roger Ebert. Will this help sales? Time will tell, but I highly doubt it. A quick look at Justin Lin’s box office history will show the difference between his mainstream works and his AA-focused films. Even Better Luck Tomorrow, a milestone for the community when it was picked up by MTV, didn’t pass the $5 million mark. Very few directors in the world can prove to studios that they will haul in cash. Even fewer of them would value their heritage enough to pursue projects at a loss. Even worse, besides some pats on the back, the AA community might not even reward you for creating quality work that speaks to us.

Better representation will need to come from elsewhere

Don’t get me wrong. I think Asian American films are crucial to developing a cohesive culture within our community. I’ve gone out of my way to purchase films I’m interested in myself. When it comes to representing and helping Asian Americans succeed in the greater industry, however, it’s not the way to go. It has been sort of a “chicken or the egg” question: should our films bring actors into a spotlight, or should big-name AA actors help grow our films? It seems like we’ve tried a lot more of one than the other.

Instead of just growing a market for AA film–and it will eventually grow as we get more of our own movie stars–we have a significant need to show that an Asian face can help market a film. Or if we’re talking about baby steps, having an Asian face doesn’t hurt sales. In my opinion, this is where the growth will happen, but it’s not being pursued enough by the relatively big Asian American names that have popped up in recent years.

In his interview, John Cho touched on the importance of having someone in the media that one can look up to.

“It’s so important to see someone who looks like you doing it,” Cho said. “It’s something our brain needs, to see someone who looks like us doing something to convince us that something is possible.”

We’ve seen a bit of a renaissance in the recent years for independent Asian American artists, largely thanks to Youtube. It has broken down barriers by showing that an Asian face can have an audience in the US, but not enough has been done to break down new barriers. Some artists, such as Kevjumba and Wong Fu, gained much of their audiences by courageously addressing Asian Americans issues. Others, like Freddiew, made videos that appeal to different niches, such as video games. There is a general trend toward making more universally interesting material by some of teh big names. Wong Fu released a short series as an experiment for a TV-styled sitcom.  Another example, and one that is closer to what I would like to see, was Kevjumba’s teaser for his sci fi project, Waking Summer.

The project is directed by Sung Kang (from Fast Five) and there are other Asian American artists’ fingerprints all over it, from the DP to the music. Yet as a whole, the racial makeup of the crew is the least significant part of the video. It screams quality for an independent project, and anyone can view it and enjoy. We are currently lacking in this type of entertainment. I believe there are a lot of viewers, Asian American and otherwise, that don’t support AA artists. Not necessarily because they dislike the artists, but because the content doesn’t appeal to them. Having someone you can relate to is not as important to viewers as watching an engaging storyline. In other words, we can’t expect Asian Americans to support AA content just because they can relate to some degree. When we have more content that is widely appealing, and contains an Asian American face, then I believe we will see a lot more progress. We’ve seen this work in music with Far East Movement.

I’m not saying all Asian Americans in film should shift to doing very mainstream works. I just think we need more balance between AA films that tackle AA issues, and AA films that are just…films. Those who want to create AA-centric art and film should be highly encouraged to do so. But we also need artists whose passion are in a variety of subjects, like Freddiew and Harry Shum Jr. I understand that overall improvement will be gradual, and of course the last thing we want is for actors to go back to selling out their heritage. However, I think the next breakthrough for our community in entertainment is for us to be chosen for roles where the casting call is for good actors, not just good Asian American actors.