Friday, August 22, 2014

Do Asian Men Exist In Asian-American Movies?

Well...... It Depends!

I came across an old post from 2010 on the YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily blog that asked some uncomfortable questions about possible invisibility of Asian men in Asian-American literature.  As this YOMYOMF post from a few years back suggested, there may well be bias in some Asian-American produced literature in which Asian men are rarely given romantic prominence opposite Asian female protagonists. Uncomfortably, those novels listed in the YOMYOMF post are all written by Asian-American women. But, this got me thinking about Asian-American film, and how the Asian-American gender relationship plays out in that particular cultural arena.

Wikipedia has a page devoted to Asian-American films that provides a convenient list (and links) of one-hundred-and-twenty-seven films deemed to belong in the category. I took the liberty of doing a casual study of the listed movies to try and gauge how we represent ourselves. Since I was hoping to gauge the degree to which Asian-American films represent Asian men in leading or love-interest roles, I decided to slim down the list to include only those movies that are full-length and have narratives that call for a (archetypally) masculine lead or love interest. So, I omitted documentary works, short-films, films in which an Asian male lead (i.e. a "masculine" lead) was not really called for (e.g family movies, or girl power movies - like "Eden") and older movies (because when these films were made pre-1970's, the Asian race dynamic was vastly different than what it became post 1980).

I ended up with around 66 full-length narrative films, from which I extrapolated the following information; gender and race of the writer (either screenplay or novel derived), the race and gender of the leading male and female characters. Bear in mind that I have not watched all (or even most) of these movies, but instead read the plot outlines on their respective Wikipedia pages, or Internet Movie Database site - not perfect, but I think sufficient enough for a rudimentary study that I hope will lead to more questioning within the community. I admit that I discovered some interesting things.

Out of 66 films, 19 were written by women, and 47 by men. Interestingly, even though the category is "Asian-American Films", a significant number of these 66 films were written by non-Asians - of the 19 films with female writers, 2 of those were white women, of the 47 written by men, 18 were written by white men, and 3 were white/Asian male collaborations. So, even though there appears to be an ostensible gender disparity in these productions, once we subtract those "Asian-American films" written by non-Asians, then this disparity decreases significantly. And, of course, since so many of the listed movies were written by white males, there are some questions about what actually makes a movie "Asian-American", a subject which I will not delve into in this post.

Of the 26 movies written by Asian men, 15 had both an Asian male and Asian female lead/prominent roles and 4 had an Asian male and white female lead (the rest either did not specity any female leads or their presence was difficult to gauge from the Wiki Plot outlines). Of the 21 Asian movies written by white men (or Asian male white male collaboration), 13 had Asian male leads, 3 of which were Asian male/female co-leads, and 8 were written with white males as the love interest or main lead opposite Asian female characters. Of the movies written by white women, one featured an Asian male lead with a white female lead (Restless), the other featured Asian male/female co-leads (Eat A Bowl Of Tea - based on a novel by an Asian woman).

But, it is the movies written by Asian women that are the most interesting. Of the 17, a whopping 12 feature either a white male lead or love interest with an Asian female lead, or even when there is a prominent Asian male role, their characters are somehow not eligible as love interests. This means that even white dudes have a better record at writing lead roles for Asian men in Asian themed movies. Interestingly, I included two gay themed movies with Asian male writers (Colma The Musical and The Wedding Banquet), and in one of those, the love interest is also a white male (but there is an Asian male lead). Here's a rundown of the Asian male devoid Asian female written films......

Bam Bam and Celeste        No prominent Asian male roles
The Beautiful Country        Asian lead character is a child - the leading
                                           "men" characters are white
Falling for Grace
                Asian female, white male love interest
                                          Asian male "lead" character is Asian
                                          female's brother
                            Two Asian male leads, one is the brother
                                          of the female lead,the other gay, white
                                          male love interest for main Asian female
The Joy Luck Club 
            Asian men are bastards. No explanation
The Mistress of Spices
       Indian Asian female, white love interest
The Princess of Nebraska
 White gay male lead character, no apparent
                                           prominent Asian male roles
Red Doors
                         Asian male character a family member,
                                          white male love interest for eldest daughter
The Sensei
                        White male love interest.
Thousand Pieces of Gold 
White male love interest plus, Asian male
                                          character is a bastard.
Thousand Years of Good Prayers
  White male love interest
Tie a Yellow Ribbon
            Asian woman seemingly in love with her
                                          adoptive white brother.
One of the films written by Asian females feature an Asian man in lead roles with a white female love interest - Never Forever - and a three of the movies - Golden Gate (David Henry Hwang), Charlotte Sometimes, and Disney's Wendy Hu (Victor Cheung) - are written by Asian men, or have Asian men as part of the writing team, and they also feature white male leads and love interests for the Asian female leads. But, overall, it seems that Asian men are underrepresented as leads and/or love interests in movies written by Asian women. On the other hand, the majority of Asian-American films written by Asian-American men seem more inclusive of Asian females and provide opportunities for Asian female actors. Again, I offer the caveat that I have not watched most of these films and so I cannot make any qualitative assessment of how any of the characters were portrayed (regardless of race).

But, based on the plot lines, it seems as though films written by Asian women, for the most part, follow in the footsteps of the mainstream media's habit of excluding Asian males from roles where they can be the love interest. Even white dudes - when they write serious "Asian"- themed screenplays - seem to have a better record at giving Asian men lead roles in Asian-themed films. Ouch!

Here is the list of movies written by Asian men that feature prominent Asian female roles....
Asian Stories, Better Luck Tomorrow, Catfish In Barbecue Sauce, CharlotteSometimes, Close Call,  The Debut, Fakin Da Funk, Kissing Cousins, Living On Tokyo Time, The Rebel, Robot Stories, Undoin, West 32nd, Wendy Hu, Yokai King
And the rest of the movies written by Asian men that I used in the survey....
Amerasian, Baby, Colma The Musical,  Golden Gate, Green Dragon, Miami Connection, Shanghai Calling, Shanghai Kiss, Supercapitalist, The Wedding Banquet, Yellow,
Movies written by white dudes which have a white male lead/love interest opposite an Asian female character......
China Girl, Come See Paradise, Heaven & Earth, Lani Loa, Make Your Move, Redwood Curtain, Snow Falling On Cedars, GranTorino.
White male writers with Asian male leads or prominent roles....
Americanese, The Corruptor, Dark MatterDim Sum Funeral, Drive, Fast and Furious, Harold And Kumar (2 Movies), Replacement Killers, White On Rice, Chan Is Missing, Revenge Of The Green Dragons, TakeOut 
Movies with Asian female writers that feature prominent Asian male male leads/roles....... 
Never Forever, The Picture Bride, Raspberry Magic, Shangri La Cafe, Strawberry Fields 
To be fair, The Joy Luck Club did have prominent Asian male leads, but qualitatively, the roles were somewhat negative overall.

The two movies written by white women that feature Asian male leads...
Eat A Bowl Of Tea, Restless                

Sunday, August 17, 2014


..Arthur Chu Gets It Right.

In the past I have criticized Arthur Chu for some aspects of his writing, but his latest piece is written with the kind of oppositional spirit that is all too-often lacking in Asian-American writers who have access to mainstream exposure. To me, Chu's piece should typify the Asian-American approach to writing about our experiences and not be the exception

I won't reprint the piece here, but here are some excepts......
It was a moral that explained many things. It explained, for instance, why he never went to parent-teacher association events, never integrated himself into “the community.” Why he consistently obeyed Rule #1, a rule that my friends’ white suburban parents had never considered—a rule I would not hear from others until I actually met people who’d grown up urban and poor when I got older—Never Talk to the Cops. (In the Bill of Rights it’s actually Rule #5.)........Why he urged me to choose a career specialization based on objective assessment of skills and achievements, one where success was quantifiable, one whose practitioners were organizationally indispensable. To take an “Asian” job like engineer, scientist, programmer. One where there was little room for subjectivity, where the personal impression of the interviewer counted less. To stay away most of all from fields where I would be judged purely based on how well people could relate to me, like direct sales, like middle management, like the performing arts........To never, ever, ever put my livelihood in a position where I depended on white people liking me.
That lesson was: This Is Not Your Country.........You can live here. You can make friends. You can try to live by the law and be a decent citizen and even maybe make a lot of money.....But you will never, ever belong. You will never, ever be one of them. And you must never, ever trust them. 
I swallowed it all. As much as I could. I swallowed things that tasted foul and struggled to keep them down, but I did the best I could, to prove I could, to prove that I could swallow anything. I stomached the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Riots of 1871. The gold miners and the borax miners and the railroad workers. I held my nose and I ate Jack London and the Yellow Peril and the coming war with China. I swallowed H.S. Tsien's deportation and Cold War paranoia and Joe McCarthy and the Yellow Peril and the coming war with China. I choked down Wen Ho Lee’s arrest and Vincent Chin’s murder and Iris Chang’s suicide and Andrew Breitbart and the Yellow Peril and the coming war with China. 
The historical atrocities and the daily microaggressions. Kids who screamed “Chinese Pig!” and adults who asked in an exasperated tone “I mean where are you from originally?” John McCain and the gooks he could never forgive.
The white racist looks at me and sees a stolen job or the slow decline of national prominence, but he doesn’t see a rapist, a thug, a barbarian at the gate. I fear being snubbed and sometimes spat on but rarely shot. And that is a very important difference.
Please go over there and read the whole piece, I don't think I have read many pieces like it that are so honest about the Asian experience.

The only caveat I have is that it would be easy to view the piece and the sentiment as a mere tag-on or afterthought in the story of African-Americans, and whilst I see some value in intersectionality, the fact remains that the Asian racial experiences that Chu describes are sufficiently serious and do not require the intersectionality with the black experience to be given more credibility.