Asians in Hollywood: Representation in 2018 and Beyond

"Crazy, Rich Asians" a catalyst for more diversity in Hollywood

Oscar Kim Bauman, Scarlet Staff

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Asian representation in Hollywood is having a moment. While director Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” has received a majority of the media attention, there are in fact three major studio films currently in theaters featuring Asian leads.


The aforementioned “Crazy Rich Asians,” released by Warner Brothers, features a multinational all-Asian cast and explores the dynamic between Asians and Asian-Americans. “Searching,” directed by Aneesh Chaganty and released by Sony Pictures, stars John Cho as the lead of a thriller that packs in tension and unique filmmaking alongside distinctly Korean-American touches.


Finally, “A Simple Favor,” directed by Paul Feig and distributed by Lionsgate, features Henry Golding, also of Crazy Rich Asians fame, as a British professor who finds himself tangled in a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his wife.


Each of these films incorporates the cultural identity of its Asian characters to a different degree, and in doing so, creates a diverse blueprint from which future representation may grow. Based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” follows Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), as she is introduced to the obscenely wealthy Singaporean family and friends of her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). While a lighthearted romantic comedy, the film also incorporates deeper themes including the cultural conflict between Asians and Asian-Americans, and where there is potential common ground between these groups.


Though critically praised and commercially successful, “Crazy Rich Asians” has also been controversial. One of the primary issues raised before the film’s release was the issue of its multi-ethnic ensemble playing a cast of entirely Chinese-Singaporean characters. While most of the film’s actors share the same Chinese ethnicity as their characters, there are several exceptions. Awkwafina, who plays Goh Peik Lin, is of Chinese and Korean descent. Ken Jeong, who plays Peik Lin’s father Goh Wye Mun, is also Korean-American. Sonoya Mizuno, who plays Araminta Lee, is of Japanese, English, and Argentinian descent. Nico Santos, who plays Oliver T’sien, is Filipino-American. Most notably, Golding, the film’s leading man is of Malaysian Iban and English heritage.


These casting decisions have lent themselves to multiple discussions, the first which is how appropriate it is to cast an actor of one Asian ethnicity as a character of another. Critics of the practice say it encourages the stereotype that Asians are interchangeable, while supporters

point to the fact that white actors frequently play characters of various European ethnicities with

little question and ask why Asian actors can’t do the same.


The second question is of particular concern to the casting of Golding and Mizuno– can multiracial Eurasian actors play Asian characters? By and large, the deciding factor seems to be whether the actor “looks Asian,” a criterion that is highly subjective and can vary greatly based on any number of factors. Both issues were brought up last year in a controversial interview by actor Jamie Chung. Chung, who is Korean-American, said she was denied a chance to audition for Crazy Rich Asians as she was told the film was only looking for “ethnically Chinese” actors. She pointed out the apparent hypocrisy in the studio’s final decisions regarding casting, calling the casting of Golding “bullshit.” Chung’s comments received much backlash, and she later apologized to Golding. Much of the criticism accused Chung herself of hypocrisy, noting that she herself had played a Chinese character, Mulan, in the show “Once Upon a Time.”


“This is a very long-standing debate, and the same questions come up every single time,”

said Clark English Professor Betsy Huang in a phone interview. “If we want to have only those who self-identify as Chinese or Chinese-American play a Chinese or Chinese-American character, we need to decide how we define ‘Chineseness.’”


Huang is also the Director of the Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies (CGRAS).


Another recent example of Asian-American representation in Hollywood, “Searching,” is unique in two aspects. It is one of the first films to take place entirely on computer screens and the first of the form to achieve critical acclaim. Beyond that, its casting of Cho as lead David Kim makes it the first mainstream Hollywood thriller to feature an Asian-American lead. In addition to Cho, the rest of the fictitious Kim family is played by Korean-American actors: Joseph Lee as David’s suspicious stoner brother, Sara Sohn as David’s tragically deceased wife, and Michelle La as David’s mysteriously missing daughter.


The film features subtly authentic touches of the Kim family’s Korean roots. An opening

scene features the cooking of kimchi stew, and later David refers to his parents by the Korean words “eomma” and “appa.” David is briefly seen texting his mother in Korean.


Ultimately, the film could have chosen to cast the Kim family as one of a different race and the script would only require minor rewrites, leaving the narrative intact. However, in an interview with “We Live Entertainment,” Chaganty declared that, “We wrote it for John Cho. We

had a Korean-American family, an Asian-American family, in mind and it was just John Cho

from the top.”


Films like “Searching” form a crucial part of representation. They feature Asian-American characters whose ethnicities, while not being centered, are not erased either. While something like “Crazy Rich Asians” works as an effective breakthrough moment, the future of Asian-Americans on film may look much more like “Searching.” Rather than highlighting their race in every appearance, Hollywood films could allow Asian-Americans to take on roles

that any other American actor could play.


Searching,” while successful domestically, was an even bigger hit in South Korea. The

film made almost as much at the Korean box office as it did at the American one, in a country

with a population less than a sixth of the size of that of the United States. Headlines on Korean

news sites emphasized excitement among the Korean public to see an ensemble of Korean-

Americans on film.


Crazy Rich Asians,” while higher grossing overall, made a much smaller percentage of its gross in Asian markets. Some writers attributed its relative underperformance overseas to its cultural specificity; the film is specific to the experience of a Chinese-American becoming acclimated to Chinese-Singaporean wealth, and may have been less relatable to an Asian audience than “Searching”’s more familiar premise.


“Because [Crazy Rich Asians] is that specific in its premise, it doesn’t travel to other groups,” said Professor Huang.


A Simple Favor,” a comedic-tinged thriller from director Paul Feig, features a more complicated type of representation. The film’s marketing largely centers on its two white leads: Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. However, in the film itself, Henry Golding, as Sean Townsend, the husband of Lively’s character Emily Nelson, takes on a role equally as prominent.


Townsend’s race is not a theme of the film. In fact, it isn’t brought up at all. The only defining background to the character is his English nationality. While actors of Asian descent play Townsend’s son, Nicky, and Townsend’s unnamed mother, their race is never referenced. It is easy to imagine the role of Sean Townsend was originally intended for a white actor, likely one of Hollywood’s many archetypically handsome British men.


While Golding’s appearance in “A Simple Favor” is undeniably representation, the question remains of whether it is good representation. On one hand, Sean Townsend is essentially a white character in all aspects other than the actor playing him. Conversely, someone of Golding’s background could very conceivably live a lifestyle akin to Townsend’s.


The casting of Golding could “expand people’s notions about what a British person looks like or is,” according to Professor Huang. “When the writer wrote this role and gave the character an Anglo name. It posed a question for the writer and the audience, when we think about a Brit, do we assume it is a white Brit by default?”


Beyond acknowledging American multiculturalism, representations of Asian characters in this way can serve to illuminate the diversity of other countries as well.


Feig has been vocal about his choice to cast Golding. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he said “movies have to be a mirror on our society. Our society is beautifully diverse and beautifully inclusive.” Golding has also already been cast as the lead in Feig’s next project,

Last Christmas,” set for 2020.


While for the time being, Henry Golding’s future in Hollywood is set, the future for Asian representation overall is less certain. Only time will tell if major studios will continue to put out films that depict Asian characters in leading roles, and what type of depictions will exist.


Chaganty, in an interview with Vulture, said that he cast Cho because “he’s a movie star through and through and does not have the roles that he deserves.” There are likely many other Asian-American actors who, like Cho, are not afforded opportunities to showcase their talents onscreen.


Professor Huang also pointed to director Justin Lin as an underappreciated Asian-American talent. Lin, popularly known as the director of films in the “Star Trek” and “Fast and

the Furious” franchises, also directed “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a well-reviewed 2002 drama which featured an all-Asian cast, including Cho.


The future of Asian representation in American cinemas, while uncertain, has great potential. With three different takes on representing Asian culture and characters in these three films, a stronger framework now exists to be built upon in future films. The success of these films proves that the talent and the audience for these films exists, and the fate of representation now rests in the hands of the studios.