By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007
As an Asian American man -- Filipino, to be exact -- there's a game I like to play called WTAG: Where's the Asian guy?
The number of Asian American men on MTV, Bravo, CBS, et al.? Not many, though there's Daniel Dae Kim, co-star of ABC's "Lost." Never mind that he speaks only Korean on the show. The number of Asian American guys in recent films? Think. Hard. And no, Jackie Chan and what's-his-face -- the name is Chow Yun-Fat (no, it's not a Hunan dish) -- don't count. They're from Hong Kong.
This relative invisibility -- and the stereotypical characters that Asian American men often portray in films and television -- is the subject of "The Slanted Screen," a sometimes meandering but highly researched and essential documentary, the Asian American counterpart to the gay-themed "Celluloid Closet." It airs on PBS tonight, the last show of the Friday prime-time lineup, near the end of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Ouch.
Narrated by Kim, the one-hour doc uses film and TV clips, in addition to insightful, emotional interviews with old and young actors, to trace the history of Asian American men on the big and small screens. Some clips are known, including scenes from the 1961 film "Flower Drum Song," the first MGM musical with an entirely Asian cast; many are obscure. Cinephile that I am, I've never seen a clip from "The Sand Pebbles," the 1966 film that earned Mako, the legendary Japanese American actor, his Academy Award nomination.
It says a lot about the current state of pop culture that the Hollywood silent era proves to be the heyday of sorts for the Asian actor. It was during that period that the dashing Sessue Hayakawa -- born and raised in Japan, educated at the University of Chicago -- was considered a bona fide matinee idol, a contemporary of John Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin. But though Hayakawa landed the lead male roles, like in the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille film "The Cheat," he often played the villainous exotic lover who lost the girl at the end.
Indeed with the history come ugly, overlooked truths. Mako recalls a studio executive's reaction when asked about featuring a non-Asian in the lead of "Kung Fu," the classic 1970s TV show: "I remember one of the vice presidents -- in charge of production, I suppose -- who said, 'If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes.' " James Shigeta, the star of "Flower Drum Song," remembers a movie musical producer telling him, "If you were white, you'd be a hell of a big star."
And Gene Cajayon, the Filipino American director of the 2001 film "The Debut," the first Fil-Am movie to be released nationwide in the United States, talks about the revised ending for the action movie "Romeo Must Die," a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" where the R&B star Aaliyah plays Juliet to the Chinese actor Jet Li's Romeo. The original ending had Aaliyah kissing Li, a scenario that didn't test well with an "urban audience." So the studio changed it. The new ending had Aaliyah giving Li a tight hug. Says Cajayon, "Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light."
Which makes you wonder: When was the last time, on an American TV show or movie, you saw an Asian American man as the object of attraction?
"Slanted Screen" is written, produced and directed by Jeff Adachi, who also happens to be the San Francisco public defender whose work was featured in the 2002 PBS documentary "Presumed Guilty." Stereotypes abound in his documentary: The Asian man as kung fu master. Think Bruce Lee in the classic film "Enter the Dragon" and the TV show "The Green Hornet." The Asian man played by a non-Asian, among them Mickey Rooney as the bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The Asian man as supergeek. No amount of soap can wash off the stench of the Long Duk Dong character in the 1984 cult classic "Sixteen Candles." The Asian man as the mysterious enemy, or the stiff-faced store owner, or the barely English-speaking waiter . . . you get the point.
In the documentary's most moving interview, veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who was criticized by his fellow Asian Americans for playing roles such as the evil Shang Tsung in the movie version of the popular video game "Mortal Kombat," says: "In Hollywood . . . we had a choice of playing wimpy businessmen or evil bad guys. The worse thing I can do is play a bad guy and be a wimpy bad guy, which is what I grew up with. And my intention was, if I'm going to choose between wimpy businessman or playing a bad guy, I'm going to play a bad guy. Because . . . I want kids to grow up to know that Asian men got [guts]."
Adachi, the former producer of the Golden Ring Awards, an annual event for Asian American entertainers, offers a few bright spots. In the past few years, a new generation of actors and directors, in ways more liberated, more in control, than their predecessors, are making some headway. The 2002 film "Better Luck Tomorrow," a critical darling, was co-written and directed by Justin Lin, who tells the story of Asian American overachievers in a wealthy Orange County, Calif., suburb who, beside being straight-A students and athletes, have thriving sidelines selling cheat sheets and drugs. Yes, they're good students, as Asians are believed to be. But they have complicated lives like others, too. Comedian Bobby Lee, on the regular cast of the Fox show "Mad TV," took his own life experiences and created a regular sketch called "Average Asian." A jingle at the beginning of one sketch goes: "He's an Average Asian / Eastern medicine is not his occupation / Can't fix your back if it goes wrong / . . . He's an Average Asian."
"I wanted to confront the stereotype," Lee says. "I didn't want to be the stereotype."
In the WTAG game, that's a victory in itself.
The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television (one hour) premieres tonight at 10:30 on WETA (Channel 26).