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Simu Liu, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrea Bang star in the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience. Photo courtesy of CBC Television

Refreshingly ordinary

Casting white actors in Asian roles used to be the norm. Audiences today want better representation.

By Lisa Van de Ven

There’s nothing really groundbreaking about the premise of Fresh Off the Boat. The show, entering its fourth season this month on ABC, centres on a 1990s family that has just made the move to Orlando, Fla. The kids start new schools while Dad runs a cowboy-themed restaurant and Mom tries to navigate the world of suburban housewives, a far cry from their old life in Washington, D.C.

Family-based sitcoms are classic network fare, so there shouldn’t be anything surprising about Fresh Off the Boat. Except that it’s the first American television sitcom in 21 years to focus on Asian-American leads.

“I was expecting something more exotic,” a new neighbour on the show remarks to Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), the family’s Taiwanese-born mom, in an early episode. Yet it’s the ordinariness of the Huangs, the show’s central family, that is itself refreshing — especially in a film and TV landscape, where, according to a 2016 USC Annenberg report, “at least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen.”

The representation (or lack thereof) of Asian characters in North American film and television has long been problematic. From Mickey Rooney’s 1961 portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to Japanese-American Gedde Watanabe’s 1984 role as the caricatured Long Duk Dong in the teen classic Sixteen Candles, films have often presented Asian stereotypes for laughs. Some of Old Hollywood’s most esteemed actors — including John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn (in The Conqueror, The Teahouse of the August Moon and Dragon Seed, respectively) — donned so-called yellowface for roles. And as recently as 2015, actor Emma Stone courted controversy by portraying a character of Hawaiian and Chinese descent in Aloha. Other movies — including the 2008 casino film 21 and Tom Cruise’s 2003 epic The Last Samurai — either replaced Asian characters with white facsimiles or sent a white man in to save them.

It’s this pattern that modern audiences are finally beginning to balk at, turning to social media to criticize the likes of last year’s Doctor Strange from Marvel, which cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan man in the original comics. And while filmmakers might have traditionally cited box office projections to explain their decisions to cast white actors rather than those of Asian heritage, audiences have started speaking with their wallets too, demonstrating that white stars aren’t always the most bankable choice.

There are signs that the backlash might be working. “I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews,” Paramount’s domestic distribution chief Kyle Davies admitted to the CBC in April, after the Scarlett Johansson vehicle Ghost in the Shell — which reportedly cost $110 million to make — made a disappointing $19 million on its opening weekend. Based on a Japanese manga (a style of comic), Ghost in the Shell saw criticism well before its release, thanks to rumours that filmmakers commissioned a special-effects company to test digital techniques that would make a white actor look more Asian — basically a modern-day version of yellowface.

While that never came to fruition, the problematic casting of Ghost in the Shell turned out to be more than skin deep. Designed with a human brain and cyborg body, Johansson’s character, Major — Major Motoko Kusanagi in the original comics — is referred to as the “future” of the human race. The catch: in the film, that future is white, even when the brain inside the body is that of a Japanese woman. White, by inference, is better.

Whether purposeful or not, the same messaging threads through last February’s The Great Wall, where a whole Chinese army — trained their entire life for the task — needs white mercenary William Gavin (Matt Damon) to save them from monsters. The film was also a box-office disappointment.

“A lot of people’s visions of who they think looks like their hero is rooted in systemic racism,” Fresh Off the Boat’s Wu said during a panel discussion last year. Yet television shows as disparate as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Elementary have proven that people are happy to watch Asian characters in a variety of roles — from the male love interest to a modern-day gender-bending Dr. Watson.

In Canada, Kim’s Convenience, which just launched its second season on CBC, also does its part to showcase complex Asian characters that push past stereotypes. Based on a hit play by Ins Choi, the series focuses on the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family who run a corner store in downtown Toronto. Traditional Korean and modern Canadian values collide as Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) navigates his relationship with a prodigal son and a daughter following artistic dreams he doesn’t quite understand. It’s in this seam that the show finds its humour as well as its heart, spinning the Kims’ experience into a universal story of generational conflict and family ties.

Director Bong Joon Ho’s quirky Netflix film Okja, released this past June, is a similar example of positive representation. It stars Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal alongside Korean-American actor Steven Yeun and 13-year-old South Korean actor Seo-Hyun Ahn in the lead role of Mija. Growing up on a traditional Korean mountain farm, Mija raises and befriends a genetically modified super pig. When he’s taken away to be slaughtered by an American food conglomerate, she makes it her mission to follow and save him. Outside her rural home, though, Mija is a foreigner, whether in the crowded urban centre of Seoul or across the ocean in New York City — trusting others to translate her words and the environment around her, sometimes to her detriment.

Of course, a handful of films or television shows can’t erase the troubling history of racial ignorance and discrimination on screen. But the critical success of projects like Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience and Okja — combined with negative audience response to big-budget films like Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall — offer hope that film and TV producers might finally be ready to explore a world as diverse as the one around us.

Lisa Van de Ven is a writer in Toronto.

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