Columns, Opinions

Kim ’19: We need Asian American representation in Hollywood

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In recent years, Hollywood has been pushing for equal representation for all genders, sexualities and ethnicities on-screen. While Hollywood is making progress on these issues, there is clearly more to be made, especially for the Asian American community. Only in the past three years or so have Asian Americans seen an uptick in leading roles. Television comedies such as “Master of None,” starring Aziz Ansari, “Fresh Off the Boat,” starring Randall Park and Constance Wu, and “Dr. Ken,” starring Ken Jeong, have done well with audiences.

Now, we may be witnessing that success expanding to feature films. Currently playing in select theaters, “Gook” is a film about two Korean American brothers — Eli, played by Justin Chon, and Daniel, played by David So — and their unlikely relationship with an 11-year-old African American girl, Kamilla, played by Simone Baker. The film follows them in Los Angeles during the first days of the infamous Rodney King riots in 1992. The film won this year’s Sundance NEXT Audience Award — an award whose winner is voted for by the viewers, rather than chosen by critics. “Gook” is the directorial debut of Chon, who also wrote and directed the film.

Throughout the film, we see billowing pillars of black smoke against a muddy-white sky — the film is shot in black and white, and importantly so, as “Gook” explores the tense relationship between Korean Americans and African Americans during this riotous period. The term “gook” itself is a derogatory one given to Koreans by Americans. In Korean, “mi gook” means American, so people mistakenly assumed that’s what Koreans called themselves.

In the ’90s, Los Angeles was segregated, with African Americans populating impoverished areas. At the same time, Korean Americans immigrating to the United States had very little money. Often, they took up residence in these cheaper areas and started small businesses of their own. African Americans felt threatened, and as “Gook” shows, would steal from and vandalize stores owned by Korean Americans. This in turn incited violence from Korean Americans to stop such acts. Ultimately, both groups gave in to unpropitious stereotypes, contributing to enduring tensions. Eventually, these businesses brought money into the poorer neighborhoods, which are now thriving economically. These relations in Los Angeles, where Chon grew up and to which he clearly has personal ties, are still improving.

“Gook” explains and explores these relationships well. Every character gets their turn in the spotlight, and nearly all roles are played by people of color — the only notable white actor in the film, ironically, plays a doctor. As the depiction of the riots brings the film to its climax,  viewers enjoy a payoff that taps into our rawest and most fundamental human emotions —  fear and love.

It’s a fine debut for the 36-year-old Chon and a relevant one considering the political landscape today. It’s a film people should watch. Support for “Gook” should be and deserves to be stronger. Asian Americans have long been out of the spotlight in media. We have long been labeled as timid and shy, but as “Gook” shows, Asian American presence in Hollywood is steadily growing.

Just a month ago, actor Ed Skrein, who’s white, announced he was leaving his major role in the upcoming reboot of “Hellboy,” because he was unaware the original character in the comics is of Asian descent. The show recently cast Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim to replace him, demonstrating that it really isn’t too hard to cast appropriately.

“Whitewashing” has become a term thrown around almost nonchalantly. Even during the 2015 Academy Awards “Oscars So White” controversy, all the focus was directed on African Americans, with the Asian and Latinx community receiving little support or recognition. Though it was called “Oscars So White,” America treated it as “Oscars Not Black,” with Asians being the butt of a cheap, stereotypical joke from host Chris Rock. In other words, we’re still getting there.

What Justin Chon did in “Gook” is rare in Hollywood. He created a strong story in a timely setting, and we should be paying more attention to it. Hopefully, it inspires others to follow his lead. As my 15-year-old brother put it: “It was nice to see an Asian American guy as the lead in a film. I haven’t seen that in a long time. Like, ever.”

Zander Kim ’19 can be reached at alexander_kim@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.