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?