Arts, Column

Kang: Making a Case for Cultural Significance

It’s about time for movies and TV to include some sort of representation, and recently, more and more films have increased the diversity of their casts and storylines. When I asked Becky Mode, a television producer most known for the Netflix limited series Unbelievable, what caused Hollywood to attempt some semblance of diversity in the past few years, she said that the industry was motivated by a sense of shame. 

Through the Women in Hollywood course, taught by Christina Klein and Kelsey Norwood, I was able to be a part of a discussion with Mode, in which she said the entertainment industry knew for years that it was leaving behind massive portions of its audience. On-screen representation could significantly change that. 

In the past few years, a slow trickle of movies promoting Asian storylines and employing Asian performers has come to light, and with it has come a debate on how important these works are.

Take the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians for example. Beyond the all-Asian cast, the storyline is a basic rom-com: girl meets her boyfriend’s family, boyfriend’s family turns out to be terribly wealthy, the couple and family bicker, and in the end, they all live happily ever after. In choosing to highlight this common trope, only with Asian casting, Crazy Rich Asians shows viewers that Asian lives are just like theirs—filled with awkward, sweet, and sincere moments.

Of course, there are some cultural touches, like the game of Mahjong between Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh), the mother of Rachel’s love interest, Nick Young (Henry Golding). The story also takes place in Singapore, enabling the film crew to showcase the beauty of Asian culture and the world beyond America. 

Beyond these elements, however, the film largely follows the same structure as any old rom-com.

Always Be My Maybe falls under this category as well. Boasting a star-studded cast, this zany movie is dripping with tropes of rekindled childhood love. Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) are awkwardly adorable and barely proficient in any love languages. Their performances are quintessential rom-com material, such as when Sasha tells Marcus she’s going to die alone and all he has to say in response is a weak “there, there.” Beyond a surprisingly feminist ending, the movie generally follows a typical rom-com structure. Its conformity to the greater genre once again helps audiences see and normalize more happy endings for Asian characters.

But, movies like these beg the question: Is representation enough to make a movie “good?” Does an all-Asian cast automatically make a film worth watching? Marvel’s upcoming film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starring Simu Liu is the latest example of how more and more genres are branching into Asian representation.

It’s hard to believe this show is genuine, though, when it comes on the heels of many racist and harmful portrayals from this same entertainment company. Anthony Mackie, Marvel’s Falcon, has for example pointed out the racist, white-centric practices of the company. So it’s more than plausible that representation only matters to entertainment franchises now because they have realized either how profitable it can be or how much damage their reputations take when they lack diversity. If Netflix believed it could sell another whitewashed narrative, it probably would. Only now that its audience is more aware has it appeared to attempt a global perspective.

Beyond whether or not motivations for these efforts are actually right, the bigger question is if these movies can be lauded simply for their casting decisions. Should we praise movies just for not whitewashing every single role they create?

There’s definitely a danger of confusing movies like these with culturally significant works—particularly since, in recent years, so many amazing films have been coming to the attention of American audiences. Director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, for example, portrays the intricate beauties and pains of Asian American life. Director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell delves into cultural differences and frictions that build between family members and within oneself as a result of immigration. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s work, though not American-made, has also been receiving the spotlight, from breakout movies like Parasite to films like Snowpiercer, which casted notable American actors.

It’s clear that these films have thought deeply about culture and society in general, enabling them to transcend to the world of cultural significance. Movies like Minari and The Farewell chronicle lives and struggles that deserve more recognition in the United States. They’ve also begun to stretch the rubber band around the definition of “American,” helping the country to better understand diversity on its home turf.

Bong himself has helped Americans understand they’re not the center of the universe. Even his attitude about the Oscars—evident in his referring to the award show as a “very local” film festival—is a refreshing divergence from the typical reactions to this dazzling event. His behavior is also indicative of a mind that knows how to develop an individualistic view even while taking in international media. In other words, even though Bong is knowledgeable of world cinema, he cherry picks what he believes to be culturally significant films based on his own opinions and personal agenda rather than a western-centric love of all things American. His actions are evidently indicative of a global perspective on life—a perspective that puts one performative night of wearing black to the Oscars to shame.

The work that these directors have done largely changed America’s conceptions of Asia and Asian cinema. Movies that simply employ all-Asian casts are not revolutionizing the film world in the same way—but they are still opening the door to a broader world for Asian representation and Asian narratives that shed light on the entire minority community. If anything, movies like Crazy Rich Asians, which amassed $238.5 million, might reach wider audiences than works of art like Minari ($11.6 million). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is sure to be a crowd favorite regardless of its cultural significance.

While it’s still rare to see movies that go beyond tokenism, any sort of significant step toward proper representation in cinema is worth lauding, at least to some extent, because it means we’re tipping the needle. I wish we could expect more from American cinema, but as of yet, the progress is definitely gradual, and that doesn’t make it unremarkable by any means. Even if I have a preference for Parasite over Always Be My Maybe, I have to praise the latter for what it made possible. And I have to appreciate what it says about where American cinema will go.

Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau / Heights Editor

May 2, 2021