As I watched Late Autumn in a nearly empty theater at Koreatown’s CGV Cinemas, I thought to myself that a certain element of the film seemed out of the ordinary. It wasn’t the plot, it wasn’t the cinematography, and it definitely wasn’t the dialogue.
As the two main characters leaned in for a cinematic kiss, it finally hit me. This was the first movie I’d ever seen in an American theater with Asians in the lead roles portraying realistic and complex people with regular problems. Korean actor Hyun Bin plays an immigrant Korean gigolo and Chinese actress Tang Wei plays a woman who killed her abusive husband and is temporarily released from prison to attend her beloved mother’s funeral. Nevertheless, these characters were shockingly… normal, struggling to find love and inner peace in their complicated lives as social outcasts. Hyun Bin never busted out any ancient martial arts moves to roundhouse-kick villains, and Tang Wei wasn’t a coy geisha.
Although Late Autumn is in English and was filmed in Washington State, it wasn’t even made for American audiences! The film is a remake of a 1966 Korean film of the same name and was directed by a South Korean filmmaker and distributed by a Korean film studio. It played at several international film festivals and premiered in Korea before making an extremely limited run here in the States.
Try to think of the last time you looked at the big screen and saw an Asian actor. That hilarious guy from The Hangover? The nerdy dude from Twilight? Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid sequel? These three characters show how limited the role of Asians in American cinema really is. Ken Jeong’s “Mr. Chow” in The Hangover would probably be less memorable if he didn’t deliver his outrageous lines with a stereotypical Asian accent. Justin Chon described his Twilight character Eric Yorkie as “just an academic kid who wants to get in to a good college.” (Of course, Bella rejects Eric when he asks her to the spring dance; a lowly Asian nerd is no match for the swoon-worthy sparkly vampire himself, Edward Cullen.) And lastly, I love Jackie Chan, but I can’t get over the fact that The Karate Kid isn’t even about karate, which is a Japanese martial art; it’s about kung fu, and it’s set in China. To the American entertainment industry: do you really think that we just all look the same?
Asians in American movies are kung fu masters, insignificant geeks, the butts of jokes. YouTube celebrity Kevin Wu, aka “kevjumba,” wonders if American cinema lacks Asians because the general public thinks “Asians just aren’t cool enough” to have leading roles in movies that aren’t about martial arts.
As for me, I’d like to think that in real life, we Asians are actually pretty cool. It irks me that Asians are so often underrepresented and stereotypically portrayed in the media these days, and I want to spread awareness about these complex issues facing the Asian-American community. So, this is my first post on a weekly blog I’ll be writing this summer that will hopefully delve deeper into the offensive, the controversial, the interesting, and the quirky sides to Asian identity and representation.
感谢你阅读! (Thanks for reading!)