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 rolesOne 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).
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
Half-Life 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.
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 Matter, Dim Sum Funeral, Drive, Fast and Furious, Harold And Kumar (2 Movies), Replacement Killers, White On Rice, Chan Is Missing, Revenge Of The Green Dragons, TakeOutMovies with Asian female writers that feature prominent Asian male male leads/roles.......
Never Forever, The Picture Bride, Raspberry Magic, Shangri La Cafe, Strawberry FieldsTo 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