Asian American actors are no longer anomalous yellow faces on TV and movie screens. It wasn’t long ago when an AA on TV meant a guest spot on “Kung Fu” or “MASH”. In film, the IMDB credits for AA actors like Mako, James Hong, Keye Luke, and Nobu McCarthy quickly demonstrate the pigeonholing and Orientalist expectations in casting an AA actor. Even in the 80s and 90s, most AA actors had to fight each other to play the role of Chinese Guard No. 2 or Asian Liquor Store Owner. Now, every major network will finish out the 2014/2015 TV season with at least one AA in its main cast. This is no small feat despite the fact that, according to nbcnews.com, AA presence for the current season went down to 4% from 6% in the previous year. Nonetheless, ABC is planning on airing “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first all AA sitcom on broadcast TV since “All-American Girl”, and AA actors like Lucy Liu and Ming Na are getting first bill on popular shows.
Despite the increasing number of AA actors, quantity does not equal quality. Most AA actors are mere peripheral players, so it’s not often that they can showcase their craft. However, given the steady increase of AA character actors and the occasional AA lead, you’d think that the law of averages would kick in so that an AA actor would have, by now, married talent and skill with insight to a superlative degree. Instead, the pool seems to be teeming with mediocre actors who are accidentally or conveniently Asian.
Like this guy.
Or this nonsense.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been some truly outstanding performances. John Lone’s frigidity in The Year of the Dragon, Sab Shimono’s slightly unhinged flamboyance in The Big Hit, Hoon Lee’s attitude-as-ammunition in “Banshee”, and Lucy Liu’s emotionally logical Watson in “Elemental” are marks of not just good performances, but of fine craftsmanship. Their performances really portray the proper tone and space of their respective characters. But for every performance like Victor Wong’s in Eat a Bowl of Tea, you get Sung Kang’s depthless readings, Justin Chon’s shrill idiocy in Revenge of the Green Dragons, the bland taste of John Cho’s acting, and Tim Kang lulling you to a permanent sleep. Coincidentally, Cho and the two Kangs all went to UC Berkeley at about the same time as I did. Maybe we’d have hung out in the same circles if I wasn’t too busy being passed out on some stranger’s bathroom floor. But lucky for them, I didn’t go into acting. Instead, this guy took my place.
While increased AA visibility is great (and there’s still a lot of room for improvement), the talent hasn’t yet arrived. Here’s hoping that one day, this kid will light things up and take over Hollywood.