People watch movies for different reasons. They may put it on when they want to pass time, some may look at it to appreciate the art, and others might use it as a way to relate to the characters. But think about this: does your favorite Hollywood film have an Asian cast member in it? Even if there was, they don’t get enough credit compared to other roles. Sometimes it even feels that they were included just so the movie could say that it had a “diverse” cast.
Not to burst your bubble, but you can observe below the different Asian tropes in popular movies that you might have failed to notice. But you’ll also see how representation gradually progressed into more reputable roles — which is a great thing, but there’s a long way to go.
How it started
Who would forget Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Her role was so iconic that people might have forgotten how actor Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film. He was a white man who donned yellowface as a Japanese photographer.
One of the earlier films that also depicted Asians as a punchline was Sixteen Candles (1984). An exchange student named Long Duk Dong came to live with a white family. He was a laughing stock because of his broken English, and people often mocked his pronunciations.
When the early 2000s arrived, some films didn’t age well like Austin Powers In Goldmember (2002). Two women named Fook “Mi” and Fook “Yu”, were objectified by the main character as he ticked “threesome with Japanese twins” off his bucket list when they were about to give him a “top secret massage”.
While Mean Girls (2004) has been a big part of pop culture, it showed Trang Pak, a.k.a. the school’s Cool Asian, as an underaged girl who had an affair with the school’s gym teacher.
In more recent films, there were still hits and misses. You can see that Suicide Squad (2016) had a diverse cast, but Katana’s presence wasn’t felt since Rick Flag did most of the talking for her. Not to mention her role was badass since she wields that Soultaker Sword.
Even if Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) has a well-loved cast, you can’t deny that it shows the typical Asian sidekick and a white hero. Filipino-Hawaiian actor Jacob Batalon plays Ned, Perter Parker’s BFF and occasionally his backup tech guy.
How it’s going
Many movie plots have evolved with Asian actors playing the lead roles. In the earlier years, one of Grey’s Anatomy’s main characters Cristina Yang was a remarkable example. She played a highly skilled Korean-American surgeon who earned her M.D. from Stanford University School of Medicine. During Sandra Oh’s portrayal for 10 seasons, she landed Emmy nominations, won a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild awards. Now isn’t that the type of roles you wish Asians would play more?
Crazy Rich Asians (2018) broke a record during its premiere in the U.S. when it became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade. The drama-comedy-romance film also featured an all-Asian cast.
Let’s not forget how Parasite (2019) opened so many doors. It won four Oscar awards and its director Bong Joon-ho’s iconic acceptance speech changed the game, ‘Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.’
This year, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) was an instant hit since it’s Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero film to hit theatres. The K-drama show Squid Game (2021) recently made it big and it could be the most-watched show in Netflix’s history since it topped the streaming company’s drama charts in all 83 countries. Apart from South Koreans, the show included an Indian actor Anupam Tripathi who played Ali Abdul.
When it comes to Filipinos, there have been a few appearances like Jake Zyrus in Glee in 2010 and AC Bonifacio in Riverdale earlier this year. But there are also a few who recently landed leading roles in international shows such as Lea Salonga in the Pretty Little Liars reboot and Inigo Pascual in Monarch, while Lovi Poe will star in the upcoming The Chelsea Cowboy.
So why does Asian representation matter?
Many passionate Asian stars in the film industry are yet to be discovered. But before they come to life, the directors and scriptwriters are just as responsible for how they contribute to the narrative of the characters. More importantly, the viewers, especially the younger audience, deserve to see characters they relate to.
A study called I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority, reviewed the top 10 grossing movies each year from 2010 to 2019. Among those films, only 4.5 percent of the main cast were Asian and Pacific Islander roles. But even when in the main title cast, three-fourths of Asian characters are in supporting roles.
Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen told NBC, ‘That just speaks to the lack of authority that Asians have to be able to tell their own stories in Hollywood and the kind of trope of using Asian as objects.’
‘We have the intersection of racism and sexism for Asian women who aren’t just disempowered but also exploited,’ she also said. ‘It’s really hard for young Asian women to see themselves as leaders or as anything more than that especially when these images have an impact on the way they’re treated in society.’
Growing up, Asian kids might have watched films that put them in a box, which could lead to disempowerment. They don’t need another secondary character who still has to work their way up. These viewers deserve to see are figures that they really connect with. With the recent development of global series and movies casting Asian-led roles, it’s a step forward in showing the world the real image of our identity and culture.