By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
Let’s face it: Hollywood’s movie depictions of Asian Americans and Asians have sucked since Day One.
The norm has been mockery, racism, Orientalism, derision, distortion, disdain and disgust, often delivered by a white actor in yellowface or worse, a sad-sack clueless Asian selling out for a paycheck.
If not any of the preceding, then it was benign neglect, literally being left out of the picture and the narrative. In the rare case that an Asian (even now, Hollywood has had trouble grasping the concept of the Asian American) was shown any respect in a Hollywood picture, it was of the “noble savage” variety, a reverence for someone who displayed magical, otherworldly qualities, be it the Dalai Lama, Mr. Miyagi or Gandhi.
While there have been some shown signs of improvement in recent years — “Harold and Kumar” or Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” come to mind, if you don’t mind Asian American stoners and juvenile delinquents equating to improvements — the new millennium thus far has been mostly last millennium-style business as usual, whether it’s “21” or “Olympus Has Fallen.”
A couple of recent news reports made me wonder, however, if a permanent change might finally be under way. The first fact had to do with the global hit movie “Iron Man 3,” which had additional, China-market-only footage for the version shown there. The other new item was that China has passed Japan to become the No. 2 export market for American movies.
The two common denominators in those stories: movies and China.
Turns out that if you’re trying to get more of your product consumed by the world’s most populous country, irritating and angering your potential customer base of more than a billion people is bad for business. Appeasement is called for, even if that means customizing content for China or changing the villains from Chinese to North Korean — everyone hates the No Kos, after all — as was done in the remake of “Red Dawn.”
“Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko would be proud, because in this case, greed just might be good after all.
For a number of reasons, I don’t buy into the line of thinking that some businesspeople seem have when it comes to China, thinking that goes something along the lines of: “They’ve got a billion people! If we could just get one percent of that market selling our chocolate-dipped pig testicles to those godless saps, we’ll be rich, I tell you! Rich!” (With the possible sale of meat producer Smithfield Foods to a Chinese company, though, maybe the Chinese will sell those delicacies to us.)
If there are, however, those who buy into that line of thinking and want to do well by doing good, namely breaking with tradition by not offending a huge group of Asians who happen to live overseas (versus a relatively small group of American Asians here), then who am I to complain if it directly or indirectly turns out to be the rising tide that lifts Asian American boats? (As it turns out, Chinese audiences reportedly laughed during “Iron Man 3’s” tailor-made China-market footage. As for its villain, the Mandarin, turns out he wasn’t quite the Fu Manchu-lite bad guy as depicted in the original comic book source material.)
I don’t know whether this shift to cater to China will last or if it means Hollywood will consider cultivating Asian American stars to cross over into China and the rest of Asia. Somehow, I kind of doubt it on both counts. But the shift in mindset, coupled with the increasing number of Asian Americans in Hollywood, might have other positive, unforeseen ramifications. Let’s check back in 10 years and see.
Will Justin Lin Be Just in Time? Dept.: It was the biggest box-office for a Memorial Day holiday over the weekend, and the big movie that made it so was “Fast & Furious 6,” directed by the previously mentioned Justin Lin. “FF6” registered stellar gross domestic box-office receipts of $117 million. Lin and company should be celebrating.
But what about another number? What about the number “442”?
A few years ago, when Lin inked a development deal with Universal Pictures following the success of “Fast & Furious” (which was No. 4 in the series for those keeping count), the article I read said he wanted to make a movie about the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In all of Hollywood, I can’t think of anyone else with the clout, talent and sensibilities to do this story justice. Though of Taiwanese descent, Lin spent some time working at the Japanese American National Museum and one of his first projects was the documentary “Crossover,” about Japanese American-based basketball leagues. Lin, out of all the A-list directors in Hollywood, knows a thing or two about this community.
So, with the financial success of “Fast & Furious 6,” Justin Lin now has even more clout. But does he still have the desire to make his 442 movie?
According to IMDbPro, a movie titled “442nd” is among 10 projects Lin has in development. But under the heading for the year it would be released, there are only question marks.
Those question marks are appropriate. Just because he would like to make it and just because it is a project in development doesn’t mean it will happen. Whether Lin ultimately directs or ultimately instead produces it and hands the reins to someone else is another question mark.
Regardless, let’s hope that Lin decides to put this project on his front burner. I’m sure he’s cognizant of the fact that the remaining men who served in the 100th/442nd will, sadly, be gone soon. If anyone deserves to see their story told in a major motion picture, it’s this group of elderly men. Justin Lin, if one of your minions happens to read this and passes these words on to you, do the right thing and turn those question marks into an actual year. In other words, it’s time to be furiously fast, Justin, before it’s too late.
Camp Hanabi Dept.: Got the following bit of news from an old friend of mine, attorney Ernie Nishi. He said that the Southeast Japanese Cultural Center is having its second annual Camp Hanabi for kids age 5-13 from July 8-12. It’s from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and costs $150. The kids will participate in Japanese-derived cultural activities such as kendo, judo, taiko, origami, folk dance, Japanese conversation and song, calligraphy and food tasting, as well as basketball, clay sculpting and hula dancing. There’s only room for the first 100 applicants. The center is located at 14615 Gridley in Norwalk. For more information, visit sejscc.org/camp1.html or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached via email. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.