Quick, name three non-martial arts movies with an Asian lead! Now try naming three movies with a Caucasian lead! Which list did you have more trouble with?
For decades, Hollywood has type-casted Asian actors; they are martial arts experts, brainy lab scientists, exotic arm candy, or just cheap comic relief. As Maggie Q. of the television show ‘Nikita’ put it, “…the ethnic box, it is a very small box they put you in. It’s a lot of effort to climb out”. It is easy to fall into believing that ethnic boxes no longer exist in our forward-thinking world. For whatever reason though, certain ethnicities are consistently overlooked and underrepresented. Considering that there are more than 23 million Asian immigrants in North America alone, it is not as if a shortage of people is preventing films from using Asian actors. So the question becomes: what is keeping Asian actors off the big screen?
The greatest concern among industry insiders is whether non-Asian people can identify with Asian-American characters. This reflects the norm that an Asian character automatically comes with preconceived notions, whereas a white character is a blank slate. This norm, however, is not representative of the diverse society we currently live in. There are Asians in every corner of our nation, so why are they not found on screen?
Audiences seem to be completely fine with Asian characters themselves. Yet when it comes time for casting, even Asian roles are given away to Caucasian people. Remember the movie ‘Avatar: The Last Air bender’? It was based on an animated television series in a world populated by Asian and Inuit cultures. In the movie, however, all of the actors for the lead roles were white, except the villain, which brings up enough unfortunate implications to write a whole different article. Another example of illogical casting choices is found in the film ‘Cloud Atlas’. Instead of simply hiring Korean actors to depict Korean characters, they used Asian eye prosthetics and yellow face makeup in an attempt to make Caucasian men look Korean. Would any director in this day and age use brown makeup on a white actor to make him look African-American? No, that would cause public outrage. Yet somehow, a badly painted yellow face is acceptable.
While radical leaps have been made towards racial equality in reality, these improvements have just barely trickled into Hollywood. Admittedly, some forward progress has been made, for example ‘Pacific Rim’ stars Rinko Kikuchi, a Japanese actress. Director Guillermo del Toro pointed out that “[Rinko’s] not going to be a sex kitten…it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character”. It is directors like Guillermo that show a shift in Hollywood that reflect the shift in our culture.
Asians have long proven their ability to produce quality entertainment for a western audience. Many prominent YouTube stars are Asian after all, including Ryan Higa, Michelle Phan, and WongFu Productions. The internet has been a great equalizer as well. Anyone can make a video and become a star as long as the quality is there. What differentiates platforms like YouTube from Hollywood? Auditions. There is no racial screening with YouTube.
Besides being frustrating for Asian actors and audiences alike, it just doesn’t make sense economically. It is now common practice for Hollywood movies to add additional scenes with Asian actors just to appease their audience across the ocean. As time goes on and Asian countries continue to become more interlinked with western nations, the viewership demographic will become increasingly Asian and demand entertainment that reflects that. For years the norm has been racism, mockery, orientalism, and juvenility, but it turns out when you are trying to sell a movie to the world’s most populous countries, offending them does not help business.
There are plenty of talented Asian actors who can’t catch a break, there is an industry waiting to cater to the largest population on earth, there is a society and generation rapidly breaking racial stereotypes. It’s your move, Hollywood.
Photography Courtesy of Matthew Jacula