I came across an article the other day, talking about the uplifting phenomena of Asian girls dressing up as Lara Jean Covey from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. As someone who grew up not celebrating Halloween and not participating very much in costume or cosplay culture, this was still able to strike a chord with me.
Because the article (which I’ve linked, here) features pictures upon pictures of Asian people dressed up as the lovable Lara Jean Covey, a Korean-American. There are so many things that I could say about TATBILB, but that’s not the reason I’m sitting here on Halloween night writing out this blog. I’m here because this story, among with other successful movies of 2018, are the reasons why I had someone I wanted to dress up as for Halloween.
Don’t get me wrong, TATBILB is not my favourite movie. Hell, it might not even be one of my favourite movies. But the fact remains, I saw an Asian girl playing an Asian role in an American movie without her being type casted as an “exotic” character. She’s the shining face on every poster. On the front of every ad. Anyone who even remotely knows about TATBILB knows the face of Laura Jean Covey (played by the wonderful Lana Condor). Do you know how rare that it is?
For YEARS (basically decades) Hollywood has whitewashed Asian narratives. Let’s take the controversy of 2017’s Hollywood live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and their whitewashing of the main role (and let’s face it, loads of the other roles) by casting Scarlett Johansson. I remember hearing about this and feeling my heart sink.
There are so many Asian actors and actresses out there. Why weren’t any of them considered for the role?
1) ScarJo was chosen because she was “a big star that could attract an audience” (and therefore a profit)
Okay, fair enough. We know that big stars attract the big bucks. But not every movie slaps a big flashy star on the front to make a profit. Didn’t all of these stars have to be cast in their very first major role at some point? There was no guarantee that their movie would make money, but we bet on them anyway. Why is it any different for a movie like Ghost in the Shell?
GitS is already a very VERY famous story. It’s been around since the 1990s, starting as a manga written by Shirow Masamune, adopted into its principle film in 1995. It was so successful, the franchise produced a variety of spin offs and series in addition to the main story. And these medias have proved to successful. Do we not have faith in the source material which has already proven to be commercially successful?
Besides, even with ScarJo’s casting (or can I be so bold to say because of her casting?) the movie performed HORRIBLY in the box office. It’s estimated that $60 million was lost due to lack of revenue and overall cost of production and advertisement. Movie critics have a hypothesis that it is due to casting controversies and scathing pre-premiere reviews that damaged the film before it even released. It seems popular stars taking lead roles aren’t guaranteed to make a film successful in the first place. So why not cast a racial accurate actor?
2) The Major is a cyborg, so does she really have a race if her body is made of manmade robotics?
The main character of GitS is Matoko Kusunagi, a cyborg who is made completely out of synthetic material (aka, a “shell”), but implanted with a human soul (or “ghost”). She struggles with the separation of her body and spirit throughout the original story, but does that make her any less Japanese than the other characters?
I’d argue no. In the original version of GitS, directed by Oshii Mamoru, the Major is still fully conscious of who she is. She knows that she’s Matoko Kusunagi and that she is the leader of Public Security Sector 9 of New Port City, Japan.
That’s what’s key here. Regardless if Kusunagi’s real body still exists or not, it doesn’t mean that she ceases to exist as who she was before. The soul that inhabits the cyborg body is still Matoko Kusunagi. And Matoko Kusunagi was/is a Japanese woman who lives and works in Japan.
If we argue that it’s her body that dictates whether she is Japanese or not, are we not going to consider the fact that the body her soul was taken out of, and the soul that continues to live inside her cyborg body is Japanese? Do we consider the body more descriptive of who a person is over their soul?
And then we have to open the whole can of worms where they changed the name of the main character to “Mira Killian” who later realizes she is Kusunagi Matoko because she lost all her memories and… why did we have to change to plot of GitS in the first place? To justify the casting of a white woman in an Asian role? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just… Cast an Asian person in the first place?
And besides GitS and ScarJo, there have been so many other incidences of white celebrities taking Asian roles. Let’s not forget Emma Stone playing a quarter-Chinese, quarter Hawaiian, and half white character in Aloha in 2015.
Cameron Crowe, the director of Aloha apologized to the people who felt the casting was misguided but also justified his choice by saying, “As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng [Stone’s Character] was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one… The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local.”
As someone that often gets misidentified (I’m Filipino, but even my mother has told me I can look white in some lights, haha) it can be rather frustrating to be mistake as something else. But that doesn’t mean that if someone to be cast as me in a movie, I’d be okay with them using a white person. Regardless of if the character of Allison looks like a white person, they still should have used someone that aligned with Allison’s racial make up, instead of Emma Stone, who is basically as white as it gets. After all, just like any other races, Asian people can look vastly different from the “stereotypical” look of an Asian person. I bet you there’s an Asian actress that could have played Allison Ng that is often misidentified as white, no problem.
And yet, despite all these controversies, I’ve begun to see hope in the future for Asian representation in media. Just this year, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing representation for Asia in cinema. It started with Lana Condor being casted in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, sure. It was carried on by my viewing of Crazy Rich Asians, starring the absolutely beautiful Constance Wu. But what really spoke to me? A short featured right before a full length feature.
In June of this year, the long awaited Incredibles 2 came out. While a huge fan of the original Incredibles, what struck me the most about my viewing of the movie, was the Pixar short, Bao, which came before it.
It’s a stunning short film directed by Domee Shi, A Chinese-Canadian storyboard writer and director. The story of Bao, which deals with the “Empty Nest Syndrome” often experienced by parents when their children grow up. Bao explores the idea of a dumpling (or “Baozi”) that comes to life and struggles for independence from its maker (or mother figure).
This particular story truly hit home for me, as it’s about the love of a mother, trying to protect her child, which in turn makes the child feel stifled and unable to grow. Unable to cope with her “son” leaving her, the mother promptly eats her dumpling son to prevent him from leaving. In reality, the dumpling is a representation of her son, who has grown up and left the home.
I remember sitting in the theatre, surrounded by the laughter of children and adults alike as the mother gulps the dumpling down in one smooth swallow. One person even shouted aloud, “What?!”. But I myself was fully sobbing.
The story of Bao personally struck every chord, every struggle, I had experienced while growing up in an Asian home. It can feel stifling or strict, and you feel the need to rebel or push what you want. But it’s easy to forget that your parents really want what’s best for you. It was the first time in cinema I’d felt that a story was catered to me and my experiences, and I was able to relate so strongly to the messaging of the film, I cried.
The short is only about 4 or 5 minutes long, but it was so deeply impacting for me. This was the reason that representation matters. It’s for the people who don’t feel like they’ve ever had their stories told. It’s for the people who have never had a character to look up to and think, I’m just like them. It’s for the people who have felt that their stories are not worth telling.
The media I’ve consumed this year in North America give me hope that some day, someone like me could end up on the big screen. People will hear the stories of Filipino North Americans. People will see my culture and learn to appreciate it.
There’s still a long way to go. But I believe that we are starting to take a step forward in the right direction. There are more Asian-American actors/actresses/activists speaking out than ever before. And there are real changes being made. One day, it will be a thing of the past where the stories of my community were silenced or white washed.
I hope I live to see that day.