Asians on screen: Did Michelle Yeoh's Oscar win make a difference?
S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman Park , Art's Spring showcases in full swing. The festival highlights films made by Asian filmmakers from around the globe. The diverse selection presents complex representations of Asians , but Hollywood is not always shared that point of view. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando had her interest in Asian films sparked at a young age when her Chinese grandfather got her a subscription to a Chinese film magazine. She speaks with Park Arts artistic director Brian Hu about Asian representation in Hollywood and the independent films that have challenged those views.
S2: I remember when I first came to Hollywood , it was a dream come true until I got here , because look at this face. I came here and said and was told , You're a minority. And I'm like , No , that's not possible. And then someone said to me , You speak English. I mean , forget about them not knowing Korea , Japan , Malaysia , Asia , India. And then I said , Yeah , the flight here was about 13 hours long. So I learned.
S3: So that was Michelle Yeoh with the Golden Globes earlier this year as she accepted the award for best Actress in a musical or comedy for everything , everywhere , all at once. Now , she also won the Oscar for best actress , and that was history making in its own right.
S4: I'm not optimistic that Hollywood want us to really change , but I hope that this is a wake up call within the Oscars to be like , you know , we've done this already. Like , let's let's continue doing it. Like we've proven that it can be done. For me , this is a moment for the people who grew up watching Michelle Yeoh and there are many , not just the United States , but of course , all over the world. And for people like me is I grew up watching her because my parents are Chinese immigrants who rented the VHS tapes of Hong Kong martial art films , and she was in so many of them. And I would never have thought that any star from those Hong Kong movies would ever have this moment. So I don't know. Like , for me , it is not just about race. It's not just about an Asian person. One. It's about like something from my own life one. And I think that's something that's a little bit that that to me is what is so moving about it now.
S3: Her award marks the first time an Asian has won for best actress. Now , in the past , we have talked a lot about Asian representation on the screen. And , you know , in the early 1930 , we had a lot of this orientalism and we had Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan.
S5: Most grateful for companionship on Long Desert Journey. You're the new cook or houseboy ? Lieutenant Chan Honolulu police imitating weekend guests Is that , sir , your name is Watson King. I specialize in minding my own business. Very lonesome pastime.
S3: When we talked about that , a lot of those images kind of stemmed from social and political realities of the time. How do you think we have progressed from that and like have has there been significant change or has it just become kind of subtler stereotypes that we're facing ? Yeah.
S4: I mean , when I when I do research on the 30s , 40s , 50s and 60s , it's like Hollywood is obsessed with Asia during this time. There are so many movies that are set in Asia. I mean , they're usually like the B films , including like the Charlie Chan kind of movies. But yeah , you're right. Like during this time , America was very interested in the geopolitics of what was happening in Asia , because America was a part of it. Like in terms of World War Two , like so many films in the 1940s and 50s are about Asia because that's who we were fighting so many films in the 50s and 60s because of Korea , because of all these people who were in the military , who were stationed in the Pacific Islands , sort of like bringing back stories of the Pacific Islands. And so it was on the mind almost like in some ways I feel like we're not even back at that level yet in terms of kind of films produced by Hollywood that are about Asia. That said , it was not a pretty picture because these films were they may have been about Asia , but they didn't star Asian people. So I think what Michelle Yeoh victory was really a way of Hollywood saying , we're interested in Asian stories and you can even play the main characters and you could do it with with dignity and with humanity. So , I mean , so that has definitely changed. There's no way to deny that that you can have Asian and Asian Americans sort of playing themselves in a way that makes them not just mere caricatures , but it still seems like a sort of limited imagination film that crazy rich Asians still has to have the word Asians in the title , right ? Like , why can't it just be like crazy rich young people , right ? Like , it's sort of like we still have to be called out by our difference and our exotic ness. So it's there in more subliminal ways. And so we still have a long ways to go.
S3: Well , and speaking of a long ways to go , back in the 1960s , which we would have thought was a period of time when we were a little more culturally aware and we had the civil rights movement going on. There was an awful stereotype in the very mainstream popular film 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany's. So I just want to play a little clip of Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord mystical rivalry protest.
S6: Oh , darling , I am sorry , but I lost my key.
S7: You cannot go on or keep ringing my bell. You disturb me. You must have a key. Me ? Okay.
S3: That was not that long ago. That was within my lifetime and it was an incredibly caricatured stereotype. But Brian , there is an example from within your lifespan which. Is even more recent than that that you find equally offensive. And this ties in to actor Ki hui Quan and everything everywhere all at once , and his connection to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Right.
S4: Right. When people ask me about the worst instances of Hollywood racism , I have to remind them that in 1984 , in my lifetime , this is not that old. Steven Spielberg , of all people , made Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. And this is a film about Indiana Jones is there's something about him that's always been a little bit like American Hero , like going all over the world , like , I own this place. I tell you what to do with your archaeological artifacts. And he goes to first I think he goes to China first.
S4: Their serving snake and monkey brains ? Just like stereotypes of East Asians will eat anything ? And there's something about them. I mean , there's a very short line between that and conspiracy theories and and wet markets and things like that. Then that's not even the end of Indiana Jones Temple of Doom. Then they go to India and then all bets are off. Like this is it's like India is a country of demons. That's that's how this film portrays India , where people are like ripping hearts out of chests. And it's really , really grotesque in a way that like , like what century are we not even what decade are we in ? And the things I grew up loving Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. I mean , I was a kid and I mean , this film contained probably the only person who was my age who looked like me , like a young Asian boy. And that was short round. Wow.
UU: Wow. Holy smoke. Short round , Stephanie. Okey dokey. Dr. Jones. Hold on to your potatoes. Crying out loud. There's a kid driving the car.
S4: I spoke with an accent. I didn't speak with an accent , but whatever. He was really fun and charming. And he was Indiana Jones , a sidekick. Who wouldn't want to be that as a little kid. And so , yeah , the ways in which , like , the movies are so seductive , I could hold in my mind both the fact that this is such a grotesque caricature of so many Asians , but also like my certain kind of fondness of the movie because of it , of how it's shaped who I am anyways. Yeah , Hollywood is complicated , it's complicated , and it's gotten away with a lot of horrible representations.
S9: I'm ashamed of what happened here so many years ago , and I assure you this will never happen again in my kingdom.
S10: If I offended you , then I am sorry.
S11: Well , in.
S3: Indiana Jones really feels like it was a film lifted out of the 1930s and it felt like the thinking was it's okay to deal with these stereotypes because we're referencing back to a previous period where this kind of thing was happening , but you kind of now have hindsight and should be thinking more clearly.
S4: That whole generation of Hollywood like renegades , like the Steven Spielberg's , the George Lucas's , I mean , they really made a name of making films as we did in the films of the 30s , right ? Like these adventure films. And I mean , like , that's what they watch growing up when they were kids. But it's like you can take these old genres and these old sensibilities and old sense of like action adventure without taking just the awful racism of these films. And so , yeah , it's pretty shocking how good to it is. It is in Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom.
S3: And you've talked a lot about Asian American films. You did a list of films for the Los Angeles Times , and the real change always seems to come when you get Asian Americans actually writing the scripts and directing the films and kind of seeing that creative vision all the way through. And I know for me , one key film would have been Chan is Missing.
S14: Every time we go to somebody different , we hear a different story.
S3: The small independent film and just put Asians into the center of it and played with all those notions of stereotypes that Hollywood had created.
S4: Yeah , I mean , Chan is missing. The title comes from Charlie Chan , right ? Like that. There were all these films in the 1930 that were kind of caricatures of Asian people. What's happens if he's missing ? What if ? And but it's sort of like , what if the sort of ethos of that is missing what is left of an Asian American film ? And how can we reinvent it anew ? And the director , Wayne Wang , really thinks about how do I reinvent cinema style performance ? How do I rethink what a Chinatown movie can be ? And so it's like a freewheeling , almost non-narrative , kind of like tour through all the the wild personalities of Chinatown. And none of these personalities would have been people that you would have seen in any film before this. Once these Asian Americans get control of the directing and the scripts and everything else , like all bets are off. And and every film seems like you're encountering cinema and you and.
S3: Another film that kind of made a big mark was Better Luck Tomorrow by Justin Lin.
S14: You don't want to play by the rules. We can make our own. It's easy money.
S15: It'll be fun.
S12: We were putting the laws of supply and demand into practice , and then it's snowball breaking.
S16: It's going to be a lot of money involved. Straight A's are alibis. As long as our grades were there , we would trust.
S3: And not only was this putting Asian faces on screen in kind of a realistic contemporary setting , but he was also challenging the stereotypes within the Asian community about Asian kids being straight-A students and all this. And that was a very significant film to.
S4: Yeah , I mean , it was it was kind of controversial. It seems strange now , but I think at that time , a lot of commentators were thinking in terms of positive and negative representation. So if Hollywood historically represents Asians and other minorities negatively , then we should be fighting for positive representations. But the contradiction is that one of the stereotypes of Asians is that we are overly positive , that we excel in education , that we say yes instead of no , that we are kind of docile , pliable , like we go with the flow or as the as scholars say , like we are the model minority. Can we actually say that the positive representation is actually a negative representation ? And so here's a film that says , well , what if we just made these straight-A students criminals ? What if it's sort of like you thought this is what we who we were because you've only known these stereotypes. Let's look a little bit closer into the dark side. And it sent shockwaves through the way we talk about Asian Americans on.
S3: Screen looking to the future. Are there any filmmakers that you would like to direct people to to say like , hey , watch what they do next ? Because this is where the next great film is going to come from.
S4: Oh , there are too many. And this is this is what I do , though , at the San Diego Asian Film Festival is get to know these young and not so young Asian American filmmakers who they've learned the lessons of better luck tomorrow and just sort of been freed by that film to really explore the kinds of directions I love the work of Andrew on. For instance , he made a film called Spa Night , which is about a gay Korean American man in Koreatown. And I mean , that one feels a little bit like the typical intergenerational conflict movie , but it's just done with such great style and sensitivity. But then he switches to this beautiful , heartwarming drama called Driveways , which I don't think Andrew wrote the script for it. There was a script going around and they were looking for a good filmmaker , so they got Andrew on who his first film played at Sundance , and Andrew said , Can we just make the characterization ? And they said , I guess why not ? And so they hired Hong Chao , who is one of the great actors right now , to play the mom. And it's just this beautifully acted movie about a family. The characters are Asian , and if you are Asian , you recognize them as Asian in terms of like the little things in the movie. Like you're like , this is clearly made by somebody who knows what an Asian American family is like , but it's not what the movie is about. And after that , he makes the movie , the movie Fire Island , which just just this romp of gay men having a grand time in on vacation. And it's an adaptation of Jane. So I love that that Andrew is proving that an Asian-American filmmaker can be so many different kinds of filmmakers all at once.
S3: All right. Well , I want to thank you very much for talking about Asian Americans on screen and for continuing to program such great films for us here in San Diego. Thank you.
S1: That was Beth Accomando speaking with Brian , who pack Art Spring Showcase continues through Thursday at the Ultra Star Cinema's Mission Valley.
When Michelle Yeoh took home an Academy Award for her performance in "Everything Everywhere All At Once" she made Oscar history as the first Asian to take home the Best Actress Award. But will that make a difference in how Hollywood sees Asians on screen?
Michelle Yeoh has been a superstar in Asia for decades, but Hollywood was slow to recognize her talent and potential. It noticed her in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," then could not ignore her or the later box office success of "Crazy Rich Asians." But last year it could not resist the demands of the multiverse as Yeoh racked up award after award for her work in "Everything Everywhere All At Once."
Yeoh made clear how she felt about Hollywood when she accepted her Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical: "I remember when I first came to Hollywood, it was a dream come true until I got here because, look at this face, I came here and was told, you are a minority. And I'm like, no, that's not possible. And then someone said to me, 'You speak English?' I mean, forget about them not knowing Korea, Japan, Asia, India. And then I said, 'Yeah, the flight here was about 13 hours long, so I learned on the way.'"
Brian Hu is the artistic director at Pacific Arts Movement. He programs the wildly diverse films at the currently running Spring Showcase as well as the larger San Diego Asian Film Festival in the fall.
"I'm pretty cynical about the Oscars," Hu said. "I guess, because I've seen plenty of times where Asian people — or all minorities — where they win and we can hail it as a moment and then nothing really changes."
But on a personal level, the win did mean something.
"I grew up watching her because my parents were Chinese immigrants who rented VHS tapes of Hong Kong martial art films. And she was in so many of them," Hu recalled. "And I would never have thought that any star from those Hong Kong movies would ever have this moment. For me, it is not just about race. It's not just about an Asian person won. It's about something from my own life won. And I think that is what is so moving about it."
'Yellow peril' and oriental exoticism of early Hollywood
As someone of Asian descent, I have always been fascinated by how Asians have been depicted on screen. Films like 1932's "The Mask of Fu Manchu," with Boris Karloff as the title villain, channeled the fear many Americans had for "foreigners," but it also revealed the fascination the public had with the exotic "Orient." Karloff's Chinese character is used as a stock villain, but there are occasional surprising moments regarding Fu Manchu when it's revealed he received education at three prestigious universities or when he expressed legitimate outrage at the pompous British and threatens an Asian rebellion.
These hints of interest to more layers of the character are not enough to gloss over the negative racial stereotypes, but they are enough to argue against the erasure of such films because they reveal where we came from as a society; we cannot see how far we came or how far we still need to go without having these films available and viewed in a broader context.
Hu points out, "It's like Hollywood is obsessed with Asia during this time. There are so many movies that are set in Asia. I mean, they're usually like the b-films, including Charlie Chan movies. But, America was very interested in geopolitics of what was happening in Asia, because America was a part of it in terms of World War II. So many films in 1940s and '50s are about Asia because that's who we were fighting. Because of Korea, because of all these people who are in the military, who are stationed in the Pacific Islands — bringing back stories of the Pacific Islands. And so it was on the mind. In some ways, I feel like we're not even back at that level yet in terms of the kind of films produced by Hollywood that are about Asia. That said, it was not a pretty picture because these films may have been about Asia, but they didn't star Asian people. So I think with Michelle Yeoh's victory it was really a way of Hollywood saying, 'We're interested in Asian stories and you can even play the main characters, and you could do it with dignity and with humanity.'"
Crass caricatures of the 1960s and beyond
But "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and Charlie Chan films had a very different tone from the crass negative stereotype Mickey Rooney gave audiences decades later in 1961with "Breakfast at Tiffany's." This was the 1960s, we were heading into the Civil Rights movement, Hollywood should have known better than to serve up such an offensive caricature. But then Jerry Lewis offered a similar Japanese caricature almost two decades later in "Hardly Working." These are just a couple more of the egregious examples of Hollywood's depiction of Asians.
But "Everything Everywhere All At Once" also reminded Hu of something else. Ke Huy Quan, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that film also famously played Short Round in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
"When people ask me about the worst instances of Hollywood racism, I have to remind them that in 1984 — like in my lifetime — Steven Spielberg, of all people, made 'Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom.'" Hu said. "There's something about Indy that's always been a little bit like American hero going all over the world: 'I own this place. I tell you what to do with your archaeological artifacts.' And he goes to, I think China first, and they're serving snake and monkey brains, just like stereotypes of East Asians will eat anything. I mean, there's a very short line between that and COVID conspiracy theories and wet markets and things like that. That's not even the end of 'Indiana Jones Temple of Doom,' then they go to India, and then all bets are off. It's like India is a country of demons. That's how this film portrays India, where people are ripping hearts out of chests."
But the film also gave the young Hu a character who looked like him.
"I grew up loving 'Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom.' I mean, I was a kid, and this contained probably the only person who was my age who looked like me, like a young Asian boy and that was Short Round," Hu explained. "He spoke with an accent. I didn't speak with an accent, but whatever. He was really fun and charming, and he was Indiana Jones' sidekick. Who wouldn't want to be that as a little kid? And so, yeah, the ways in which the movies are so seductive, right? That I can hold in my mind both the fact that this is such a grotesque caricature of so many Asians, but also my certain kind of fondness of the movie because of how it shaped who I am. Hollywood's complicated, and it's complicated, and it's gotten away with a lot of horrible representations."
Indie films from Asian Americans signal a change
Just before the pandemic, Hu did a list of the 20 best Asian American films of the past two decades for the L.A. Times. The list emphasized that real change comes when you get Asian Americans actually writing the scripts and directing the films and casting the roles and seeing the creative vision all the way through.
Films such as Wayne Wang's "Chan is Missing" in 1982 and Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow" in 2002 are key moments signaling a change in how Asians were changing how they could be seen on the screen.
Hu has been showcasing the diversity of these images through international filmmakers and perhaps more importantly, through Asian American filmmakers through his programming.
"This is what I do at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, is get to know these young, and maybe not so young Asian American filmmakers who they've learned the lessons of 'Better Luck Tomorrow,' and they're sort of been freed by that film to explore other kinds of directions," Hu said. "I love the work of Andrew Ahn. For instance, he made a film called 'Spa Night,' which is about sort of a gay Korean American man in Koreatown. But then he switches to this beautiful, heartwarming drama called 'Driveways,' there was a script going around, and they were looking for a good filmmaker. So they got Andrew Ahn, and Andrew said, can we just make the characters Asian? And they said, 'Why not?' So I love that Andrew Ahn is proving that an Asian American filmmaker can be so many different kinds of filmmakers all at once."
You can enjoy the Spring Showcase through Thursday at the UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas or seek at any of the films discussed on your own.