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Yellow In A White Industry: Asians In American Film

Heidi Carreon, Juliette Lin |
September 18, 2014 | 5:07 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporters

The the use of Asian caricatures seems to be evidence of Hollywood's attitude towards Asians in film. (Okerele/Wikipedia)
The the use of Asian caricatures seems to be evidence of Hollywood's attitude towards Asians in film. (Okerele/Wikipedia)
With the anticipation for film adaptations of popular books such as James Dashner’s "The Maze Runner" and Rainbow Roswell’s "Eleanor & Park," the issue of Asians in American films-specifically the lack of Asian representation can be a point of interest. 

Today’s lack of Asians on movie screens can be traced to the very beginning of American film. Back then, minorities—including Asians—rarely showed up in film. When they did, they  generally played small roles that embodied stereotypes, according to Theresa Villeneuve, who teaches film history at Citrus College. 

One example is Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian-American actor who had considerable fame in the United States. Hayakawa often played brooding antagonists, such as the ivory king with less-than-honorable intentions in Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” or the forceful Japanese general in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” 

Yet the negative portrayal of Asian characters in American films led Hayakawa to search for work outside of the country, according to Anthony Venutolo. Hayakawa eventually returned to America and had a successful career as an actor, but stereotypical portrayals of Asians can be—and still are—found throughout American film. One infamous example is the character of I.Y. Yunioshi, aka Mr. Yunioshi from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney, is a bucktoothed Japanese photographer who lives in the same brownstone as the main protagonists. One particular scene, where Mr. Yunioshi clumsily gets out of bed to yell at his neighbors in a heavy accent, “In thirty seconds I'm going to call the po-rice! I got to get my rest. I'm an artist!”

Though Rooney’s character is clearly a caricature, the criticism surrounding Mr. Yunioshi was enough for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to be removed from a 2008 free screening series in Sacramento. Mr. Yunioshi not only shows  Hollywood’s tendency to portray stereotypes, but also its tendency for non-Asian actors to play Asian roles, as is the case with Rooney.

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Even with real stories that prominently feature Asians, white actors get the star roles. (Ultimate Reviews)
Even with real stories that prominently feature Asians, white actors get the star roles. (Ultimate Reviews)

And still yet,  some movies completely replace Asian characters. In the movie “21,” for instance, a team from MIT uses cardshark skills to steal millions of dollars from Las Vegas casinos. In the movie, the team is made up of mostly white students with two Asians who played minor roles. The real MIT team on which the movie is based, however, was mostly made up of Asian MIT students. 

“Believe me, I would have LOVED to cast Asians in the lead roles,” Producer Dana Brunetti wrote, “but the truth is that we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted.”

Journalist Alex Tizon notes in his book, "Big Little Man," that it is a cycle; studios claim that there are no profitable Asian actors, particularly Asian male actors, and exclude them from the star-making roles. This in turn makes it harder for Asian male actors to be profitable.  

“Hollywood producers won’t heed the concerns of underrepresented people,” Tizon wrote, “until not heeding them hurts profits.”

The absence of Asians in film seems to be the norm, despite the 17.3 million people in the America who identified themselves as Asian in 2010. Filipino-American filmmaker Patricio Ginelsa, for instance, coined the term “Pinoy Sighting” after seeing so few Filipino actors while he was growing up, despite a high Filipino population in the Los Angeles area.

Many successful Asian filmmakers, such as Dan Lin, CEO of Lin Pictures, have incorporated virtually no diverse characters in their stories. Although Taiwanese born, Lin has yet to include any significant characters of Taiwanese descent. Here we see the unfortunate reality that many Asian Americans fail to advocate for the importance of representation, even when they are in a position to do so. 

Many Asian American filmmakers find that their audiences tend to be limited to their own ethnic community. In Ginelsa’s case, the expanse of his work is limited mostly to Filipino Americans. As a result, Asian Americans filmmakers are not getting the large, diverse audience that mainstream Hollywood receives. 

Though there are still kinks in the system, Asian Americans are making strides in the film industry with the upshot of Asian Americans in recent and upcoming films.

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"The Maze Runner" star Ki-Hong Lee helps break decades-old cinema Asian stereotypes. (Brooke Wentz/Hypable)
"The Maze Runner" star Ki-Hong Lee helps break decades-old cinema Asian stereotypes. (Brooke Wentz/Hypable)
For instance, “The Maze Runner” introduces Korean actor Ki-Hong Lee as Minho—one of the boys who accompanies the main character on his journey. Unlike other movies with Asian roles, this one does not rely on accentuating Minho’s ethnicity to create his character, but rather builds a complex profile of one who is athletic, supportive and a natural leader. Minho’s most notable trait is his sarcastic wit, not his cultural background.

Further, films that do highlight Asian ethnicity do so to break cinema stereotypes, such as “Revenge of the Green Dragons.” The film, executively produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Wai-keung Lau, features a predominantly Asian cast that includes Harry Shum Jr. , Kevin Wu and Justin Chon. It presents itself as a gangster/crime thriller based on real-life Asian gangs in the 1980s and 1990s, a large step from bumbling Mr. Yunioshi.

Many minority actors like Wu, Chon and Lee can attribute some of their success to YouTube.  This is a great platform for emerging actors to build portfolios and collaborate with online filmmakers for broad audiences. With reputable credits to their name, these actors have greater chance to be considered for the big screen and can potentially break the cycle that casting directors argue to be the cause of the lack of Asian American representation in film. But in order for minorities to have better representation in the industry, Ginelsa believes that people need to have awareness.

“As much as today's culture may believe we're becoming more color blind, I believe there's even more of an urgency to learn our history and educate ourselves on our lack of true representation.”

Reach Staff Reporter Heidi Carreon here and follow her on Twitter here
Reach Staff Reporter Juliette Lin here.



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