Show Business

I had been hesitant to write about the casting choices for the up coming movie “21.” For those that aren’t aware, the true story that the book was based on was about a group of Asian American students from MIT that went in to destroy the casinos at blackjack. In the Hollywood version, the group is predominantly Caucasian (even though a major detail in the book is the fact that a  part of the strategy of the team was recruiting Asian students in order to use the pit bosses’ own racist notions against them i.e. Asians pulling $1000’s at a blackjack table doesn’t seem out of place at all and also if they are an Asian American woman there is no way they could be smart enough to be counting cards).

Sure, it is the kind of distinctly American nuance that I would love to see in a Hollywood movie — the same way I was pleased with the very natural way some of the best comedies these days are multicultural like “40 Year Old Virgin” and “The Office.”

But from all I can gather, “21” does not seem like it is about nuance.

Recently, I have noticed (mostly on facebook) a grumbling by Asian Americans about the choice to feature non-Asians in the film and only a couple token Asians. There is even a movement to try and boycott the film.

There is something I just can’t get behind in this movement. Call me a sell-out, but I just see the whole idea of boycotting it as naive and a little bit pointless. The only reason I am bringing it up now is because I saw that Guy Aoki put his hat into the ring on the issue. (He doesn’t call for a boycott and I agree with him that this is something people should be aware of).

But here is the bottom line: Hollywood doesn’t care about Asian America. They didn’t make the movie to give better roles to Asian Americans. They made the movie to make money. You make money by selling tickets. You sell movie tickets by giving the audience something cool to watch. Gambling is cool. Vegas is cool. The wish-fulfilment fantasy of beating the casinos is cool. Asian Americans (unfortunately in their eyes) are NOT cool.

What disheartens me the most about the call to boycott this film is that it is like trying to beat the casino. The house always wins. Why? Because the game is rigged in their favor. Yes, every now and then there are winners (Ang Lee, Justin Lin, Harold & Kumar), but for the most part the house ALWAYS wins.

How we as a community lose is that we risk creating the perception of Asian Americans as cry-babies. And when we have something to truly be outraged by we will be written off as once again knee-jerking some issue. 

On top of that, even if every Asian American decided not to go see this film, the effect at the box office would be negligible — not even a blip. We just don’t have the buying power to pressure anyone. Also, by spreading emails and posting on message boards (and blogging about it), we are giving the movie free publicity!

At the heart of this whole issue, I ask this question: WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT HOLLYWOOD WOULD EVER GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU?

I spent many years getting upset at exactly these kinds of racist protrayals (or lack of positive portrayals) of Asian Americans in film. But after a while I realized that Hollywood isn’t going to change for the sake of being virtuous. I realized that my desires to have them re-align their priorities to fit mine was futile. Their goal is not even in opposition to my goals; they are on two completely different planes. I want stories with substance and nuance; they want box office numbers.

That is exactly the reason when it came to my own work that I went to Korea to get money to make “West 32nd.”  Hollywood was not going to make my movie. I knew that. It took a Korean company to finance my work in order to get it done. If I kept knocking on Hollywood’s door and asked for their approval, I would never have gotten the film made (or the film would have been drastically changed to suit “American” tastes).

We need to start supporting our own and ignoring stuff like this. It makes me sad that there are some great Asian American films out there that have routinely gotten ignored. I don’t know what it would take to get people to direct half the energy they use to hate on towards being positive about the stuff that is already out there.

If you are a regular reader here, you know I try to plug as much positive Asian American stuff out there, but it never catches fire the way the reactionary crap does.

Here’s a mini-run-down: “American Zombie” is in theaters this week in LA. You can see both “Half-Life” by Jennifer Phang and “Munyurangabo” by Lee Isaac Chung in New York. This week “Baby” by Juwan Chung was playing in LA as part of a special screening with VC (which I am bummed I missed). There is plenty more you can get on DVD. And most importantly, don’t bootleg it!

Even within the film “21” there is a bone thrown that can be seen as a positive. My man Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) has a supporting role in the blackjack team. Yeah, it’s not much, but you know what? He’s beginning to blow up and getting more exposure in a high profile Hollywood film is a good thing. The more work he gets, the more he’ll be able to do projects like “American Pastime” and other Asian American work.

The best way to remedy all of this is to make being Asian American and telling Asian American stories cool. Let’s buy our own. Support our artists. Show the world that we can do cool shit. Once we focus on that, I guarantee Hollywood will follow.

It’s been a while since I had a solid rant up here. It feels good.



150 thoughts on “

  1. Yellow Power. And wonderful post. i woul;d have never knew that the crew which this movie was based was asian if i hadn’t read this. it’s something that makes me feel proud of my heritage. 

  2. It just saddens me that Hollywood sometimes can’t break past the whole Oriental aspect of Asians. I guess the mindset when it comes to us Asians is that we speak Chinese and have “tra-dee-zhons” (said with a little bow for honor). But I do appreciate it when Asians are cast in the limelight, and I guess we’ll just have to wait for Hollywood to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of Asians everywhere.

  3. wow…you have a lot of comments and mine will probably be buried in the midst of all of it, but i totally agree with your post!  i think it’s great that you are out there contributing and actually creating opportunities for asian-americans.  a friend of mine once told me that the asian community needs to be more PROactive instead of REactive…and i think that supporting asian-americans, as you said, is going to be the best way to move our work forward.  keep doing what you do and supporting your peers who are doing the same!

  4. Excellent .I didn’t know the story the movie was based on so for a while I was kind of confused why a lot of people were so pissed off. When I watched it I thought it was a good movie, I loved it and I love Jim Sturgess 🙂

  5. Why are you addressing ‘Hollywood’ as if it was some council of elders sitting in front of a computer waiting to address you?…’Hollywood’ as it is, isn’t an organization, it’s a mess; a mess of bad production, bad acting, worse directing, all funded by sources who want every movie pay off to be Spiderman 3. Granted a little bit of good that squeezes through the madness once in a while. But it’s not exactly an establishment, the way a college faculty or office of government is an establishment.You want change? Make your movie, your way, with your own money.

  6. You know, for years I was burnt up about this. It pissed me off to no end. I pondered protest and activism, but in the end I realized most asian americans are too comfortable and too apathetic to really try to make a difference. Besides, negativity never got anyone anywhere. I decided the way I would make a difference is to make a change of career and start making my own films. The change starts with each one of us as individuals.

  7. Or, better yet, raise your own capital and make your own movie featuring whomever you want.  When you are risking your own capital, then you can make whatever statment you want.  Until then, those who take the risks in the movie business and put their investments on the line, can choose whomever they they think will give them the highest return on their investment. 

  8. I completely understand where you’re coming from. Asian Americans really don’t have the support they should be getting from the US movie industry. And when they are given roles, it seems as if they’re just the token asian guy that you’ve pretty much seen in 20 other movies. And I am in complete agreement with you when you said that when it comes down to it, Hollywood is only interested in the numbers. Based on the movies the came out in the last 6 months, how many can you really say had any substance…but hey, they made money right?
    Anways, major props to you and your thoughtful observations.

  9. Wow, I had no idea they’d changed the story in that way.  I’m not sure I wouldn’t be miffed about that, were I Asian… in a way, I sympathize with that those who want to boycott the film are feeling… but at the same time, what you say makes a lot of sense.  Hollywood sure isn’t about cultural significance… but rather the culture of money-making.  Good post.

  10. first constructive post about Asian American ive read in years!! (not an active blogger, im sure there are more)  i agree fullheartedly that the thing to do is support our own films, instead of bitching about others… (sure i love to complain, but im well aware how ptless it is)
    on a side note, i think many people have the same idea as well [to support Asian American films].  however, like me, we dont necessarily live in Asian concentrated areas like NYC or LA, (i live in Atlanta), or worst that we dunno where to keep in touch w the latest Asian American film news, etc.  any ideas? resources?

  11. What makes yout hink Hollywood cares about anything?  Fake boobs, people who don’t even say what they mean.  They speak words other people write for them.  They wear clothes other people pick for them.  They’re stylized hand puppets.  

  12. Wow, if it’s based on a true story, why not stay true to the story and cast actors who looked like the real people? That’s really stupid. I haven’t seen the movie but I had no idea the casting was so off!!!

  13. Thankyou, this was really interesting to read. I’m also slightly annoyed as I had been planning to write on a similar theme, but unfortunately you beat me too it, and have probably done a better job of it than I could anyway.
    As I’m sure you would agree though, the whole issue of the Hollywood cultural imperialism can be spread further. It’s an industry where you have the same commercial studios, produce the same commercial films, with the same commercial actors, for the same commercial audience. It’s like a machine operated assembly line producing homogenous products with a shelf life of a couple of months.
    Like you say, “Hollywood” doesn’t care – it’s there for the money, glitz and glamour. And a part of the reason your ethnic group is so under-represented in the industry is also due to the fact that home-grown talent is supressed, and can’t compete with the multi-million dollar production and advertising budgets of the latest Blockbuster. It’s a shame, because theres such a wealth of talent out there, but it doesn’t get a look in because of the big sharks, and consumer ignorance; people won’t bother with sub-titles or searching out different forms of cinema, Hollywood gives them there stifled fix of the latest [insert generic actor/director name here] movie. Which means that classics such as; Tzameti, Song for a Raggy Boy, Bullet Boy, 10 Canoes, Goodbye Lenin, etc, fall on deaf ears. 
    Throw in Westernized music, lifestyle, attitudes and other cultures don’t stand a chance. Think about it; these days the film industries reach is big, that you could pull up to Disneyland Hong-Kong and feel like your in an American wonderland; with the option to eat US food, mix with US idols such as Mickey, watch US TV at the end of the day in your room, and not have to bother with picking up the language as the employees will all speak English.
    Sometimes the world feels a little culturally-asymetric. 
    I look forward to your next entry.
    Best wishes.

  14. You might take offense to this, but honestly, Asian Americans are only about 5% of the American population, so I would say Hollywood probably represents that fairly accurately. I can understand being angry about changing the characters from the book, but I would hardly say Hollywood is excluding Asian Americans from the entire entertainment industry. And like you said, Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about being ethnically diverse. They’re not going to make a movie to satisfy 5% of the population. And honestly, every Asian filmmaker that I know (as in they are my friends because I am a filmmaker. I’m not talking about big time filmmakers like Ang Lee) ONLY casts Asians in their films, and that’s not any less racist. Why is it that it’s ok for you guys to say “we’re only going to cast Asians” but it’s not ok for white people to say “we’re only going to cast white people”?

  15. You are spot on though with your analysis of the situation. For a while I wanted to write about what I saw as stereotypical or unflattering portrayals of Asians in American media but before I took my ideas into outline form and then posts I realized that well, to be honest why would Asia-America want the help of a self-hating do gooding white?I’m going to stick to viciously lampooning white people in all their cracker glory that we can all laugh at. I had no idea 21 was about Asian-American students this being Hollywood I guess we need some Hollywood cliches as the roles rather then the true interesting story.Interesting post. You are the first featured to actually get a serious comment!

  16. As a non-Asian, I can’t claim to understand the position you’re in, but I really appreciate your thoughtful perspective on this issue. I had been looking forward to seeing “21” and was completely unaware of this character shift; it makes me reconsider my viewing choice. It’s sad that casting directors have collapsed under the pressure to place traditional “hunks” and porcelain blondes in lead roles instead of sticking to the storyline with integrity. I think I’ll scroll back and read some other things you’ve written.
    And what is that Motel movie? I’m a huge fan of interesting animation from outside the US, and it caught my eye immediately as I opened your page.


  17. I agree that there are so many good asian movies out there that are overlooked. Yet the only ones that actually get the most publicity are the horror movies. :t We do see some Chinese romance film so it is slowly but surely opening up to asians and asian films. 

  18. @Royford – You wrote: “You want change? Make your movie, your way, with your own money.”Please try to get at the end of the post before giving advice. Here Mike wrote: “The best way to remedy all of this is to make being Asian American and telling Asian American stories cool. Let’s buy our own. Support our artists. Show the world that we can do cool shit. Once we focus on that, I guarantee Hollywood will follow.”

  19. i’ve heard several of my friends questionin the cast as well. 
    i don’t know.  but i get a bit irked that asian americans are the ones to fuss about this kind of stuff.kind of like the whole jay leno incident way back in the day.  he makes fun of asians and they try to boycott leno. 

  20. wow i never knew that about the movie “21”…and wow you must be such an inspiration…something upsets you, and you just dont sit down and complain about do something! kudos!

  21. Another thing about show biz. . .MTV.I dont know if you watch America’s Best Dance Crew, but there are huge controversies regarding the votes for the final 2 crews. When there were only 3 crews left, the bottom 2 were Jabawokeez & Kaba Modern, 2 predominately Asian crews. It was definitely a shocker, since there was NO WAY that Status Quo could’ve gotten the highest # of votes out of the 3 of them- so people think the votes were rigged.Not to mention MTV didnt air Kaba Modern’s encore performance- the one they would’ve danced if they HAD been the final 2 😦

  22. thanks for the post, i feel like as asians, we should demand more…if we sit silent and don’t push for anything, nothing will get done.  there are so many commercials which display every race except asians, even tyra banks’ america’s next top model has had only a few asians compared to the many whites and blacks they have on every show….we have only a handful of asians (probably even less) out there in main stream media today, and it’s just ridiculous.  this applies to the news too, if asians get robbed, nothing appears on the evening news, but if its of another race, it’s reported everywhere.  i used to think its because asians as a population don’t really vote, but now, im not so sure…im just really sick of the way we get ignored, even tho we have proven we’re talented, smart, and yes, alllll that.

  23. @jiazhousarcasmo – My advice still stands,  and quite frankly I’m dissapointed that his desire is to make Asian Americans  look ‘cool’. As if saying – ‘like the rest of us’, because it’s a sad assimilation to want to make… Most of us want to know what it means to be Asian American, not what an Asian American would look like roaring down the freeway on a motorbike, killing bad guys…

  24. @Royford – Quick question: you do realize this is Mike Kang‘s blog? IHMO “The Motel” is an exemplary film that speaks to what “it means to be Asian American.”If you’d actually seen Kang’s work, you’d realize there nothing “assimilationist” about it, nor is there anything “assimilationist” about creating distinctively Asian American films (in fact, just the opposite). Your attempt to twist the word “cool” into a synonym for “assimilation” or for “roaring down the freeway on a motorbike,
    killing bad guys”
    is nonsensical. I have no idea what you’re talking about–which is no coincidence, because apparently, neither do you.

  25. @jiazhousarcasmo – The guy listed Harold & Kumar as positive models, refers to American Asian sensibilities as ‘cool shit’ and said this:”At the heart of this whole issue, I ask this question: WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT HOLLYWOOD WOULD EVER GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU?”It’s all a little hard to take seriously. As was my comment which was more in passing, then me trying to impart ‘the wisdom of the ages’.As for ‘twisting’ the word cool, take your head out of you ass… I said the same thing you did. There’s nothing assimilationist about DISTINCTIVELY Asian American films. The problem I have is that there’s not much said in this blog that makes me think DISTINCTIVE.Stop talking to me… grrr

  26. I agree. I’m not Asian but I am a graduating film student and too many people both on and off screen get ignored for all the wrong reasons. All you can do it push through… like you did. You found a way to make your film. That’s Fantastic.

  27. ok after taking the time to read a few peoples comments i do have say they have a point…. However. Hollywood is a town affected by change… change leading to ‘we’ll do whatever we have to do to make a buck’ and the simple line is…. Hollywood doesn’t venture in fear of loosing any amount of pocket change… and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a direct hit to the Asian community… lost of people go ignored. It’s just one more thing to wonder about… wonder about the nature of our society. I guess just be the change you want to see in this world… hah that was my lame famous quote for the day!

  28. You make some great points. I should really be more active in supporting Asian American efforts. I’m embarassed to admit that the Imaginasian Theatre in Manhattan is right in my neighborhood, but I’ve yet to see a film there in the 4+ years I’ve been living here. Thanks for the encouragement!

  29. Casting should be about talent, not race, regardless of what that means. You can always count on Hollywood to change major plot points of best selling books, even ones that are based on a true story. Especially because Hollywood doesn’t have enough young Asian-American actors and actresses that have been enough in the spotlight [in major roles] to sell the amount of tickets they want to for this film. Unfortunately, that’s the way marketing works. 

  30. No, it’s all about Hollywood being run by people who think that *they* know better what we, the American public, wants than we do.  And they will still always suck ass at it because they’re not John Q. Public.  They’re the grand corporate poobahs.  

  31. “The best way to remedy all of this is to make being Asian American and telling Asian American stories cool. Let’s buy our own. Support our artists. Show the world that we can do cool shit. Once we focus on that, I guarantee Hollywood will follow.”at least you came up with a solution, though, it’s easier to hate and whine than it is to do something about it.  the HOUSE always wins.  and as long as Hollywood has white money and black fear, asians don’t stand a chance except be the sidekicks or supporting actors/actresses.  unless they put out another Fast and Furious movie…lol and asians are still the bystanders!! wtf mexicans had better roles…lol

  32. I read “Bringing Down the House” back in 2003 and I remember thinking,”This is going to make a kick-ass movie.” And I got really excited about “21” until I saw the movie covers and I was like, “Wha-hey? What happen to their ethnicity?????” …Not going to see it now. I hate to be one of those “oh-the-book-is-so-much-better-than-the-movie” but what I loved about the book is the fact that is was about Asian Americans. I read enough books and seen enough Hollyw(hite) movies about white males kicking the system…bleh…keeping my $10 in the bank.

  33. Here, here!  In the end, it’s not about “the right to be represented” (if there’s such a thing), it’s about clout and talent.  People don’t go to movies, just for the positive message.  It’s like buying medicine when you can buy candy.  When you have guys like Jackie Chan or Jet Li, John Woo, people who are up there, they certainly have more power to place in whatever message or commentary they would like.. if they choose to.

  34. good entry…great points.
    hollywood will never take asians seriously, imo.  all they see in us is kung fu this and hai ya that.
    i suppose this is bound to change one of these days.  altho i don’t expect it in my lifetime. 

  35. You can’t blame Hollywood or any business for wanting to make money.  That is what a business does.  There are 2 American women in The Other Boleyn Girl and the main characters of Memoirs of a Geisha were Chinese because these respective stars have more fans than their English and Japanese counterparts.  Being Asian, I’d love to support Asian films with Asian stars, but most Asian films are not in English and they probably won’t be because there are just far, far more Asians who speak their respective Asian languages than Asians who speak English.  I think a good film is a good film regardless of the race of the characters portrayed in the film, but you always have to think about your audience and that is key in making a good film regardless of the financials.  People have to want to see it.  But in order to convince investors that their market will buy, they have to have some kind of a indication that it’ll do well.  For example, the Joy Luck Club was a very popular book in the US and it also did quite well at the box office.  Do Americans care to see cool Asians?  They are probably indifferent as long as it’s a cool film.  I think it’s justifiable to change the race of the characters for 21 to bring in actors with more fan power than a complete Asian cast.  There just aren’t that many Asian actors with a big fan base in the US.  There just aren’t that many Asian actors period in the US.  Did your parents ever talk to you about being a doctor?

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