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A Look Back at 2008: Asian Americans in Hollywood

AsianWeek, Commentary, Phillip W. Chung Posted: Dec 31, 2008

As another year draws to a close, its time to look back and see if any progress has been made by Asian Americans in Hollywood or if its the same Auld Lang Syne. Because I did a fairly comprehensive piece on Asian American representation in prime-time television a few months back, I will be focusing solely on narrative feature films here.

The good news is that more films are coming out of both Hollywood and the independent world that prominently feature Asian American talent. In previous years, it was difficult to find material for my columns; sometimes there just wasnt anything interesting out there. In 2008, I never had that problem.

But quantity doesnt always equal progress. After all, Hollywood still gave us such regressive portrayals as the white-washed 21, the God-awful Love Guru, Lets kill more Asians with Rambo and The Mummy 3: The Tomb of the Emperor of Suckiness.

Hollywood also brought us some very worthy films that put Asians front and center: Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, Gran Torino, Slumdog Millionaire, Kung Fu Panda and even The Forbidden Kingdom. I cant think of another year when mainstream Hollywood has made as much of an effort to present Asian characters with genuine depth.

Still, I have mixed feelings about the fact that none of these movies were written or directed by Asian filmmakers. We finally have consistently high-quality Asian films coming out of Hollywood, but why do they all have to be made by Caucasian men?

Which leads to the question - how did our homegrown Asian American filmmakers fare? The answer: not very well.

There was no break-through film la Justin Lins Better Luck Tomorrow. No Asian American narrative feature received a major national theatrical release this year. Again, there was no shortage of films, among them: The Air I Breathe, Half-Life, Dark Matter, Ping Pong Playa, West 32nd St., Never Forever and The Year of the Fish. Some of these films had small platform releases while others played film festivals, but none of them caught the collective attention of movie-goers.

But a good number of these films were very well made, and I would argue that the overall craft of our filmmakers is improving. Some of these films even starred well-known non-Asian actors like Meryl Streep and Forrest Whitaker. So why couldnt they get any traction?

One of the reasons may have to do with the way the film industry itself is shifting. As the cost of making and releasing films continues to increase and more independent films find themselves struggling at the box office (witness the shutting down this year of Warner Independent Pictures and massive cut-backs at other companies focusing on indie products), the market for challenging independent films, which most of these Asian American films would fall under, is now close to non-existent. If Justin Lin were to come along with Better Luck Tomorrow today, its very possible there would be no takers.

So whats an Asian American filmmaker to do? I wrote earlier this year about the rise of the Asian film industry, in particular Korea, and their interest in making more inroads into the American market and how that might benefit Asian American filmmakers.

For the immediate future at least, that dream may be over. With the commercial failure of these initial Korean-funded American projects like West 32nd St. and Never Forever, its unlikely that Korean investors are going to be so enthusiastic about jumping once again into the fire.

Plus, there has been a seismic shift in the Korean film industry. What was once one of Asias, and the worlds, most thriving film scenes is now on the brink of disaster. The Korean domestic box office has been in a tailspin and film companies are drastically cutting back their output or shutting down altogether. The bubble has burst.

I dont mean to conclude this year-end review with a bleak outlook for the future, but as anyone who hasnt been living under a rock these past few months know, the economic situation is bleak, and it would be nave to think the film industry would be immune from that.

But out of crisis sometimes arises great opportunity and Hollywood is, after all, the dream factory. Anything can happen. Sometimes all it takes is that one project or one person to come along and turn things around. Hope may be right around the corner in 2009.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble.

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