Twenty years ago, if a young Asian male had a romantic relationship with a woman on television, it would’ve caught your attention. Because usually, only Asian women were allowed to get romantic, and it was almost always with a white male. The message? Asian women are attractive, Asian men, not. Not even attractive to their own women. Thankfully, things have improved a lot since then.
Two years ago, John Cho co-starred as Karen Gillan’s love interest in ABC’s “Selfie.” On the network’s “Neighbors,” teenager Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) always seemed to be in a love triangle with two different sets of white girls. Glenn Rhee (Steven Yuen) hooked up with Maggie (Lauren Cohan) in AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” On the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) gave up a legal career in New York to follow high school crush Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) to California, trying to win him back. On “Hawaii Five-O,” Chin Ho (Daniel Dae Kim) was last seen romancing the beautiful Abby Dunn (Julie Benz). On ABC’s “Designated Survivor,” a white reporter is now cozying up to the president’s press secretary (Kal Penn).
Heck, even the kids on ABC’s family shows have girlfriends: Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) on “Fresh Off the Boat” and Dave Park (Albert Tsai) on “Dr. Ken.”
But a romantic Asian American male on the big screen? Well, that seems to happen once in a blue moon (or as often as a Democratic president gets cooperation from members of a Republican House and Senate; don’t get me started! Grrr!…). So I was pleasantly surprised to read stories about Chinese Canadian actor Hayden Szeto playing one of the love interests of Hailee Steinfeld in the R-rated comedy “Edge of Seventeen.”
Steinfeld was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for 2010’s “True Grit,” which she shot when she was just 13. Though I heard she was “Asian American,” according to Wikipedia, her grandfather was half black/half Filipino, so she’s just 1/8 of each. In this indie film written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, she plays 17-year-old Nadine Byrd, who’s believed the world was against her from a young age when she was bullied at school. Nadine’s long resented older brother/popular jock Darian, who’s always been Mom’s favorite. So when he and Krista (her only friend) become a couple, Nadine hits the roof, ends their friendship, and sinks into despair.
In one of the funniest scenes in the various trailers out there, she writes a text message to “bad boy” Nick telling him what she wants him to do to her sexually. Realizing how ridiculous it is, she tries to erase the message but accidentally sends it. She runs into the classroom of Mr. Bruner, her history teacher (a wonderfully droll Woody Harrelson), declaring that she’s going to commit suicide. After he reads out loud the text she sent and doesn’t say anything, Nadine is desperate for a response. “Say something! Please help me!”
“You need to watch out for run-on sentences.”
By this time, she’d met Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), who sits next to her in Bruner’s class and is clearly interested in her in a sweet yet awkward and tongue-tied kind of way. After their first conversation, Nadine tells Krista, “He’s adorable! Pathetic adorable.” Someone she wants to “carry around in a BabyBjorn (kind of a backpack to hold kids but in front of you).” OK, I guess that’s a start…
Eventually, they go to an amusement park at night. On the Ferris wheel, Nadine tries to guess the personalities of his parents: “Your mom gets on you about your grades, practicing your instrument. She makes you great egg sandwiches after a few years of owning a small restaurant downtown. Your dad — quiet, gruff, never really says ‘I love you’ but with his stoic presence, you know that he cares.”
Erwin nods, taking it all in (in an interview, Szeto said she was supposed to be wrong as she was relying on Asian stereotypes). Nadine catches herself: “I’m really hoping none of that was racist. But now I’m thinking ALL of it was.”
It’s at this awkward moment that Erwin — who’s not even near the vicinity of Nadine’s face — tries to kiss her, and she immediately repels from him. Nadine tells him she should probably get off the ride. Erwin panics, yelling to the operator, “Can we stop the ride?! Can we just stop it?!” Nadine breaks into gentle laughter. “Oh my God! Erwin!” It’s actually a sweet scene. Watch it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TudtdutjCKE
A few days later, Nadine returns Erwin’s phone call and, for some reason, asks him if he has a pool. She comes over to his place and realizes that his parents are rich. While spending time in a heated pool, she learns that the shy guy‘s a budding filmmaker and later sees his cartoon drawings, which impress her. When they get into an argument in the pool, Erwin does show some backbone, getting out and playing a song that repeats, “You’re a d*ck head!”
Will she choose bad boy Nick or Erwin? If you don’t want to know how this ends, skip the next two paragraphs.
Unfortunately, Nick responds to Nadine’s sexual offer, and he picks her up in his car. After parking, Nick starts groping her, believing this is what Nadine wants, and she quickly realizes it’s not and yells at him to get off her. Nick compiles but is angry and ready to take Nadine back home but out of loneliness, she begs him not to leave. They begin making out again until it inevitably leads towards sex, and she once again stops it and runs out of the car eventually crying. (Someone ought to do a movie about why so many females are drawn to “bad boys” when they really want sensitive ones. Yet they tend to find such people “too nice” and boring. Too many women think they can change men, which sounds like some irrational genetic programming only guaranteeing frustration in the end for both sexes.)
Nadine attends a screening of Erwin’s animated film, loves it, and realizes it’s about her. But he denies it. For once, she’s the one who feels awkward. Then Erwin admits he was lying. He just appreciated that for once, the shoe was on the other foot. “You’re so f*ckin’ great,” she tells him. “You’re the best person I know.” It’s implied that they’ll be together. And the movie ends. Yay! For once, in a motion picture, the Asian guy gets the girl.
Unfortunately, despite the great reviews (95 percent approval on RottenTomatoes.com), “Edge of Seventeen” came in seventh at the box office last weekend with a disappointing take of $4.8 million (the budget was $9 million, meaning the film company may not make any money unless it maintains steady interest). But I fell in love with this movie, and it stayed with me long after I left the theater. I hope you’ll support it. It deals with teenage angst in a realistic way. And although there are many hilarious scenes, there are also deep soul-searching ones as well.
Szeto was 30 when he shot this opposite an 18-year-old Steinfeld (who strangely, looks distractingly like Jimmy Fallon for most of the movie), and he looked a bit too old to be sitting in that high school classroom. But he does a good job here. Some cynics may scoff, asserting that he plays a stereotypical nerdy Asian guy. I’d argue that Erwin gives hope to many awkward but sweet boys of any race who usually get overlooked by the popular girls but who have a lot to offer if only given a chance.
Szeto told yomyomf.com that writer/director Craig specifically wrote Erwin as Korean American. Her best friends while growing up were Korean and Filipino, and she wanted to reflect real life diversity in her film. Whereas it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear that filmmakers imagined a role as white but then cast an Asian American because they were knocked out by the actor’s audition, it’s also gratifying when creators write an ethnic character because they can explore racial elements, as Craig did briefly in the Ferris wheel scene.
Do Your Duty Department: It’s rare that the Pacific Islander community gets a chance to shine in film, and Disney has offered the big-budgeted “Moana” as a tribute this Thanksgiving weekend. I don’t want to repeat things I said in the MANAA press release but it focuses on the 16-year-old title character, who tries to save her starving people by venturing out beyond her island to seek the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). It’s important that we support ethnic-based movies like this. If it fails, Hollywood will use it as an excuse not to greenlight other films focusing on minorities.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.