In the heart of Koreatown, LA, there is a theater with a third-floor marquee.
Here you’ll find common Hollywood archetypes: the gangster and the cop, seductress and the prude—sinners and saints from all walks of life. Familiar plot devices, albeit immortalized in Eastern garb and period piece, fleshed out by cinematography so cunning, shots so crisp, it’d make Wally Pfister blush. But at center stage, at the very focus of the 30 foot screen is an Asian face doing the talking — subtitles be damned.
This is the CGV movie theater in Koreatown, the Los Angeles branch of a chain of Korean movie houses. Its constant rotation of current Korean films helps make Los Angeles, the city of red carpets and permanent veneer, a true reflection of international/immigrant culture. Without diving into the vast ocean that is my senior thesis and turning away the contingent of Twitter brains and fingers, I’ll keep the history portion brief and say: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HOLLYWOOD AND ASIAN PEOPLE HAS BEEN, AND FOR THE MOST PART, STILL IS A NEGLIGENT, EMOTIONALLY SCARRING AND PARASITIC ONE.
Thank you. I’ll walk myself out.
From Charlie Chan taping the sides of his eyes and immediately assuming thousands of years of history and culture, to the 2015 edition in Aloha where Emma Stone portrays bi-racial fighter pilot Allison Ng, there is a history of whitewashing plot devices and cultural subtleties. All of which have imprinted a palpable, indelible fear that permeates the consciousness of college thinkpieces and the hearts of little Asian kids alike.
And we laugh because growin’ up it’s hard to not call the Asian kid Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan. Those are literally the only cinematic ethnography available to us. I remember watching The Joy Luck Club with my cousins — a film about four Chinese American sisters finding love and acceptance in sisterhood, sexuality and motherhood in America — and feeling a sense of undeniable relief and rest sweep over my head because of just how refreshing it was to see people who looked like my sister actually having a conversation, really, just living life on the screen.
It’s so exceedingly sad that in the 15 years since the cultural blockbuster of the millennia, Romeo Must Die, was released (RIP Aaliyah), Asian kids still don’t have a movie icon that isn’t roundhouse kicking to a theater near you. No offense to the big homeys Jet and Jackie.
2014/15 has been an interesting chapter in Asian/US cinema relations. This is because all the speculative conversations that we’ve imagined between production staffs and their financiers, the “fuck it, let’s just wipe out the whole thing” mentality (See The Last Airbender, Avatar), were given three-dimensional weight through the bleak hilarity that was the Sony Leaks. We actually saw the preeminent screenwriter of our generation, Aaron Sorkin (Go Orange) decry the fact that there isn’t a single Asian actor out there today that can embody the fullness in quality and human depth that his writing exemplifies. But in the same city where studios with such a mentality is commonplace, just miles down the road in Koreatown is the CGV theater. Routinely plodding away at delivering stories so good, and pictures beautiful enough to fuel a continual Eastern renaissance of art and commerce, that it can’t help but make mountains of that good globalization money for all parties who choose to partake.
So what we see now are the big blockbusters taking cues from the Michael Bay’s and Joss Whedon’s of the world. By marrying the international love languages of robot fighting, superhuman mutation and humanoid killing machines created by Tony Stark with primarily Asian actors/actresses cast in secondary roles, these films draw the star-studded cast to exotic Asian locales. As a result, these films draw large audiences from the real world equivalent of those locales. The markets in China and Korea have proven that they will pay more to see faces that look like theirs in an international movie. It’s a validation people are willing to spend out to see. But for the people of the Pacific Rim*, a people of transition who, despite fawning over the Hong Kong titaness Li Bing Bing steal screen time from Optimus Prime and the gawd Stanley Tucci, can’t help but long for more. Inclusion on the fringes and corners via ensemble cast cannot be the definitive answer to decades of erasure and caricature; it has to be the beginning.
But if the success of a standalone theater in Koreatown proves anything, it’s that these stories need to be told and people are willing to pay for ‘em. Gangsters will punch and kick their way to get their money. Lovers will dote and gaze lovingly at each other to climax. And period pieces about Korean revolutionaries fighting Japanese imperialism in early 1900’s Korea will assassinate war criminals and flee to Manchuria until the narrative is dutifully resolved. These stories being told three screens at a time in Koreatown and thousands of screens across the globe reveal a singular truth: Asian faces will not be relegated to sidekick status or any American margin. They’ve always been ready to play lead.
*A sociological term coined for Asian Americans who specifically reside on the West Coast of America–sharing an oceanic border with their motherlands and Eastern heritage.
Josh is a “writer” in LA too clumsy to waiter, so he goes to cafes and writes blogposts mainly about middle-America nostalgia and Asian American sheeet. Things he’s interested in order of significance: Jesus, streetwear, FIFA. And if this is starting to look like a sad dating profile, you should hit him up sometime. He has both the bleeding heart for the non-profit space and the insatiable hunger for the nicer things in life; he hopes to mend the two as gracefully and powerfully as possible.@leezpass You can find his thoughts on the best causal advertising here:forourprofit.wordpress.com