“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” is pretty much what audiences have come to expect from the H&K franchise. The third film in the series, which opens Friday and features the adventures of Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn), is a stoner comedy filled with R-rated language, semi-naked women, scatological humor and lots of drug usage. Lots.
But in its own raunchy way, the series also marks an interesting direction in the ways Asian Americans are depicted on-screen. Harold and Kumar are just regular middle-class Americans, with non-Asian girlfriends (in this film, Harold is married to a Latina), and are not in any way related to the Asian male stereotypes that have proliferated on-screen for years: the sexless nerd, martial artist or Chinese delivery guy.
Part of the reason “Harold & Kumar” was successful, says Joz Wang of 8Asians.com, an Asian American group blog, was that the original, 2004’s “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” wasn’t really about Asians. “We were seeing Asian Americans in lead roles that were funny and breaking stereotypes,” Wang says.
The films “made such a difference — to see us where it’s our point of view,” adds Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. “We’re not the comic relief, we’re not someone’s guest, the audience sees it through our eyes. Anything that gets away from the martial-arts thing, the accent, that’s good. We don’t have to be perfect, we just want to be relatable. These are just regular guys.”
There’s little doubt that the representation of Asians in the H&K films is a long way from the insensitive and often bizarre portrayals of the past, such as casting Caucasian actor Warner Oland to play the “inscrutable” detective Charlie Chan, or Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
And these images, which painted Asians as ultimate outsiders, or foreigners, certainly didn’t jibe with the world Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, creators of the H&K series (and co-screenwriters of the current film), grew up in. Two Jewish guys from Randolph, N.J., their environment included, Hurwitz has said, “Asian guys, Indian guys, black guys, and they were all very much like ourselves. But whenever we watched movies, we never saw our world portrayed on-screen. And eventually we decided, wouldn’t it be different if we wrote a movie where the Asian guys weren’t the ‘best friend,’ and they were front and center.”
Yet despite the positive representations and cult success of the H&K films, the big screen is still practically a wasteland when it comes to Asian American characters. Name an Asian American film superstar. Most people can’t. (Remember: Jackie Chan and Jet Li are Chinese, not Chinese American.) The fact is that overall, the film colony has simply not embraced Asian actors in the same way TV has. And although there is only one Asian TV series lead — part-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q in “Nikita” — several shows have Asian series regulars, including “Hawaii Five-O,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Good Wife,” “The Walking Dead” and “Royal Pains.”
“The feature market has gotten tougher in general, there are less features being made, and the kind that get made are big pictures, superhero movies,” says Cho, who was also a series regular in last year’s “Flash Forward.” “They need to be more conservative, take fewer chances. I think TV is willing to take more chances. Perhaps it has to do with the fragmenting of the market; there are so many more channels than there used to be, and to distinguish themselves they have to make more interesting choices.”
“It costs a lot more to do film, to market it,” adds Wang. “You live and die by the opening weekend, so Hollywood doesn’t want to do anything risky, especially with Asian Americans. On TV, a show doesn’t necessarily live or die on the first episode, so it’s easier to have an Asian American sidekick or supporting character.”
Overall, though, the outlook for Asian images seems to be a mixed bag. Cho says he’s “optimistic right now, representation seems to be getting better, and it’s coinciding with an influx of fresh talent.” Aoki also believes “we’ve come a long way in terms of being included,” but adds that “the industry has to address being comfortable with ethnic people being the face of their show.” He points out, for example, that even in “Hawaii Five-O,” set in a state where whites are in the minority, there are three Asian regulars (Daniel Dae Kim, Masi Oka and Grace Park), but white actors Alex O’Laughlin and Scott Caan play the leads, and “all their guest stars are white; they’re not even using Asians who live there.”
Yet for Wang, it’s not so much about quantity but quality. “I’m interested in authentic, is it relatable, is it somebody I might know,” she says. “I’m interested in seeing more of them.”
The bottom line? Cho believes that the success of the H&K films shows the studios that “it’s not the public that doesn’t want to see Asian faces. The public is a lot less conservative than [the studios] think they are.”
●Detective Charlie Chan, played by Warner Oland (1931-37), Sidney Toler (1938-46), Roland Winters (1947-49), J. Carrol Naish (TV, 1957-58), Ross Martin (TV, 1973) and Peter Ustinov (1981)
●Kwai Chang Caine, the Shaolin monk in “Kung Fu” (TV, 1972) played by David Carradine
●Sakini in “Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956), played by Marlon Brando
●Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), played by Mickey Rooney
●Treacherous Chinese communists
●Sneering Japanese army sadists
●Doll-like Asian females
●“Flash Forward” (2009)
●“Hawaii Five-O” (but leads and guest stars are all white)
●“Nikita” (part-Vietnamese Maggie Q in the lead role)
Beale is a freelance writer.
opens Friday at area theaters. 90 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, language and some violence.