Where are all the Asian rom com leads?

The cast of <i>Bridemaids.</i>

The cast of Bridemaids.

A few years ago, Hong Kong director Peter Chan was approached by Warner Brothers about remaking The Bridges of Madison County for a Chinese audience. According to Newsweek Magazine, actor Chow Yun-Fat was tipped to play Clint Eastwood's Robert Kincaid while Gong Li would take over the leading lady duty from Meryl Streep.

I have to say the idea – while slightly disorienting – makes a strange kind of sense. After all, when else would Asian actors get to play romantic Hollywood leads? On the way home from a film screening one night, it occurred to me that I can’t name a single Blockbuster rom com that features an Asian lead actor in the last five years – just  think of  top earners like The Vow, Knocked up and The Proposal, ­or films with older love interests like Hope Springs. Even ‘groundbreakers’ like Bridesmaids had an almost all-white main cast.

Recently, actress Lucy Liu (of Charlies Angles fame) spoke of her frustration of never being seen by directors as a potential romantic lead character: “I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me."

Actress Lucy Liu.

Actress Lucy Liu.

Despite being one of the highest paid Hollywood actresses on the small screen at the moment (Liu commands a neat $125,000 per episode in the US crime drama Elementary, in which she stars as Joan Watson – the sensible, brainy side-kick of Sherlock Holmes), it seems like she’s yet to make the cut. “You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

Now, I am not saying I want to see Liu in Runaway Bride – (no one deserves to go through that again anyway, whatever the cast) – but it does raise some awkward questions: could an actor be seen as less of an 'object of affection' because of his or her race? And what does it say about a movie-going public that can’t ‘relate to’ a non-white actor playing the romantic love interest?

As writer Dodai Stewart notes in Jezebel, “There are plenty of movies (and TV shows) where the leading ... role is not about the character's ethnicity, it's just that a white actor [or actress] is cast by default”.  Nikita star Maggie Q would’ve given Rose Byrnes a run for her money in Bridesmaids, while Hawaii Five-O’s Daniel Dae Kim could’ve easily taken on Simon Baker in a film like I Give it a Year.  

Actor Jack Yang, starring in <i>A Leading Man</i>.

Actor Jack Yang, starring in A Leading Man.

A common excuse for the lack of racial diversity in films is the old ‘risk and return’ argument. In the article ‘Can the romantic comedy be saved’, one casting agent tells New York Magazine that “The romantic comedy genre is the ultimate movie-star genre” – meaning that without big budget action sequence and special effects to fall back on, the ticket sales for rom coms are solely reliant on the main cast’s ‘star power’.

As a result, the protocol for studio executives is to keep things mainstream with ‘bankable’ white actors like Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams and Emily Blunt, while the supporting cast (ethnic co-workers, gay best friends, the ‘exotic’ crush) are brought on board to inject any (two-dimenional) diversity in the mix. And if the story isn’t explicitly about a Chinese ballet dancer or a lovelorn Japanese businessman, then there simply won’t be a casting call for ethnic leads.

The strangest thing, perhaps, is how much we’ve all become used to the rom com whitewash. “Many of us grew up on flicks like Sixteen Candles and Revenge Of The Nerds, in which Asian men are a joke or a punchline, brainy but awkward, and never ever part of any love story,” writes Stewart.

So how will ethnic actors break out of the Supporting Actor trap? Steven Kung, US-based writer and producer thinks regaining control of the creative process is key. A former assistant producer for Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Kung is currently working on ‘A leading man’ – a film that stars Chinese-American actor Jack Yang as GQ – a dreamy, womanising, struggling Hollywood actor that would normally be nabbed by the likes of Bradley Cooper.

 “I originally came to Hollywood because I was sick of seeing Asian men in particular emasculated in front of the camera,” said Kung in a 2012 interview with Meniscus Magazine, “No one was making the films that would portray Asian American men in a more well-rounded way.”

By casting a critical eye on the Hollywood casting process, young filmmakers like Kung are determined to change the way we look at big screen ‘romantic interest’. Surely, that has to beat an Asian remake of The Bridges of Madison County, right? 

 

69 comments

  • Agree with Steve - go out and do it yourself. Like a job interview; must extol your own virtues. Nobody has the time to get to know the real you. Silver platter it.

    Commenter
    asian guy
    Date and time
    July 11, 2013, 8:54AM
    • Perhaps it's important to establish a presence. To get the audience accustomed to the face (asian or not). An audience needs to feel goodwill for the actor. So it needs to be an inspired performance in a story that is intriguing and worthy. No good shoe horning anyone into a leading man role, romantic or not. That really should be incidental. People remember the story and the character they "bonded" with. I suppose indie films are the way to go, since large feature films are about risk management and we all know what the low risk formula looks like. Stories need to have asian guys just be guys, free of the trappings of their ethnicity and breathing life into characters that are memorable for their humanity.

      Commenter
      just another thought
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 1:02PM
  • Happens all too often on the small screen here too - Cases in point being the "evil" contestants in MKR, the very white cast of House Rules. Any full time Asians on Packed to the rafters, or HouseHusbands to name a few. There may be the odd token asian walk-on part, but apart from the odd "acceptably ethnic" Greek or Italian, Mainstream aussie TV is as white as the Shire.

    Commenter
    LJ
    Date and time
    July 11, 2013, 9:17AM
    • So your saying that the 'shows' are just like some places... ?

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 10:17AM
    • What about Carly and Emily Cheung on MKR? They were very well liked.

      Commenter
      Shelly
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 10:44AM
    • Garbage about MKR. I've seen you playing the race card about MKR before and corrected you then as well. Since you didn't get it then, I'll repeat myself.

      There were THREE villain couples on MKR.

      1. The very much white mother and daughter "beauty contestants" from WA.
      2. The Indian "Spice Girls"
      3. The Asian girls that you have selectively recalled.

      They were from three very different backgrounds yet were all villains for the same reason - they were simply annoying people. Nothing to do with race.

      I'm not saying it doesn't happen in general, but with MKR people only seem to recall 2 and 3 and conveniently forget the first villains - in my opinion they were the most annoying of all.

      Commenter
      Dunit
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 1:53PM
    • Have to agree with LJ. Turn on your TV and you will rarely see an Asian person outside of a reality cooking show or reading the news on SBS. There are so many identical shows that could be called "White People Renovating". Not to mention all the "great Aussie dramas" like Packed to the Rafters and Offspring who manage to capture the struggle of typical white suburbia. It's not unreasonable to expect these shows to reflect our society, where there are so many Asian people making a contribution in so many ways. And God forbid we could have a multi-racial character.

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 3:48PM
  • Yes, it's getting really boring the way Asian men and women are portrayed, if they are given a role at all. Asian men are stuck in the kung foo thing, only seen as warriors or something. With a role ethnicity is a factor or it isn't, and if it isn't it can be implied that any character flaws or issues the character has are a result of or a component of that race. Which may not be the point but it does perhaps explain some of the reticence in casting when ethnicity isn't a focal point for the character. We now see back actors given roles where their colour has nothing to do with anything (although usually they are the sidekick) and Denzel Washington has broken through that one. So now we need to see the same with Asian actors.

    Commenter
    Aloysia
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 11, 2013, 9:17AM
    • You've kind of answered your own question in the last two paragraphs. The onus actually IS on the producers like Steven Kung. He is both Asian and American. Kudos to him for standing up to this. But you're really only looking at this from one side. I lived in Japan for some time and while being a "gaijin" (and reminded of it wherever I went), the lifestyle of the West is worshipped over there, TV show hosts are caucasian-ised by bleaching their skin, having surgery to change their eyes and noses and worshipping the totally unrealistic images in anime (Sailore Moon for example). Some of the blame has to lie squarely with the attitudes of Asian society itself. I had one Japanese woman tell me that while I was a gaijin, I was respected more than her because my bloodline was "pure" (wtf?). Her father was British and her mother was Japanese. She was absolutely stunning and worked in the entertainment field because she had the "look" Japanese youth wanted, but not the pedigree. To me, this is a major reason why you don't see Asians in traditional leading roles in the movies, a lot of Asians don't WANT to see it. This is not a case of whites being racist. Please don't make it so.

      Commenter
      Dhammachick
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 9:21AM
      • yeah because the media surveyed that... Asian's in Australia or the US are not ethnic Japanese... They're Australian.. they're American...

        Commenter
        cecil
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 11, 2013, 12:02PM

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