The Market for Asian Representation in Hollywood
By Yaoyao Liu
Asian Faces on the Silver Screen
Earlier this year, Kelly Marie Tran made history as the first Asian woman to be featured on the cover of Vanity Fair. Portraying a maintenance worker in the upcoming installment of Star Wars who joins the Resistance, she stands alongside costars John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in the promotional photo. Her appearances follows those of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and Chinese director/actor Jiang Wen in the Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, which came out in December. Especially considering that George Lucas drew heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films in crafting the Star Wars universe – to the point where many scenes from the original trilogy are directly lifted from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress – it is about time that Asian faces feature prominently in these movies.
Star Wars is not alone in including more Asian faces in American action films. In the past few years, major Hollywood blockbusters have included a few high-profile Asian performers. For instance, Fan Bingbing, perhaps the most famous actress in China, played small roles in Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Chinese social media starlet Angelababy and Taiwanese musician Jay Chou both had parts to play in Independence Day: Resurgence and Now You See Me 2. Furthermore, Skyfall, and Looper put a lot of Asian faces on the screen simply as a result of setting portions of the story in Shanghai. This raises the question of whether the mere act of seeing Asian faces on the screen is enough to resolve Hollywood’s Asian representation issue.
As a Chinese American who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, I admittedly did not see many Asian faces at all in huge Hollywood blockbusters. Now, I’m a strong supporter of more Asian representation in American media. But when I hear about the Asian celebrities featured in these films now, many of whom are Chinese, I’m not compelled to seek out these films because I get the feeling that the studio executives making casting decisions do not have people like me in mind.
China’s Influence on Hollywood
Movie streaming services, the high cost of tickets, and a recent “sequel slump” have all been cited as reasons for why Americans have not been seeing movies at the theater in the past decade. On the other hand, movie theaters are rapidly being constructed in major Chinese metropolises to accommodate a rising middle class who have time and money to spend. Some projections estimate that it won’t be more than a few years before China starts generating more box office revenue than the United States. It’s not surprising, then, that high-level Hollywood decision-makers would want to play to that audience’s interest by making easily translatable films with recognizable stars.
Adding on to that supply-and-demand dynamic, the Chinese government only allows a certain number of foreign films to be screened in theaters. Although the number has risen in the past few years, it hasn’t gone above 40. As a result, many American blockbusters tend to follow a particular formula as to not be denied entrance into Chinese theaters: simple storylines, no subversive or overly explicit content, and availability in 3D (most theaters in East Asia have 3D functionality). In order to increase the likelihood of a film being accepted or circumventing this limit entirely, some Hollywood studios have courted Chinese investors such as Dalian Wanda, Alibaba, and Tencent for financial partnerships. Ultimately, this means that there is fast-growing amount of Chinese involvement in Hollywood at this point.
But in a lot of ways, it seems that the Asian representation happening now is bought rather than occurring as a result of demands from Asian Americans. After all, most people in the majority in ethnically homogenous Asian countries do not interpret issues of representation in media in the same way – American films are foreign, so they star foreigners (white people). Many Chinese moviegoers are content to see their favorite stars briefly on screen in American films, whether or not they come with any discernible personality or back-story. But to me, this sort of representation seems like a side effect of globalized media rather than an effort on part of Hollywood studios to shed light on a more diverse range of racialized experiences.
Representation for Whom?
Reliance on the Chinese market seriously limits the types of Asian representation that do occur. The terms “Asian” and “Asian American” encompass a wide range of identities, including people of South Asian and Southeast Asian descent. In most cases, Asian performers in the Hollywood blockbusters mentioned above are East Asian. Their roles often fall into heteronormative frames tailored to appeal to relatively traditionally-minded, middle class audiences. In extreme cases, the choices made by Hollywood studios fall in line with state racism – a recent example of this is Tilda Swinton’s role in Dr. Strange, which both whitewashed an Asian character and avoided the political issue of an originally Tibetan character appearing as revered and powerful in Chinese theaters.
These parts clearly overlook the wide variety of individual experiences comprising Asia and Asian America. I feel fortunate to be a part of an independent film festival that delves deeper into the intersections and entanglements that make up the Asian American identity. Because of my involvement with SAAFF, I’ve seen some films that hit close to home and bring a heightened sense of value to my own cultural heritage. I’ve also seen others that highlight new perspectives that are outside of my own experience, but build solidarity and cultivate a stronger sense of community. Asian representation in Hollywood still has a long way to go before it makes me feel anything close to those kinds of reactions.