Dialogue surrounding the (in)visibility of Asian-Americans on the silver screen is as effervescent as ever: Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None confronts the absence of Asians on television; Constance Wu’s praiseworthy tweet on whitewashing, hero-bias, and the racist myth perpetuated by Matt Damon’s upcoming film, The Great Wall.
Chris Rock’s light-hearted but heavy-handed jab at three clearly oblivious Asian children brought on stage to be butts-of-a-joke during the 88th Academy Awards ceremony. And all the way to Disney’s public assurance that their live-action remake of Mulan will actually cast a Chinese female. These are just a handful of sound bites in American popular culture that point to Hollywood’s bamboo ceiling.
I wanted to be more informed, so I watched Jeff Adachi’s shoestring budget but highly insightful documentary The Slanted Screen (2006), which examines how East Asian-American actors are portrayed in the film industry. I consider it required viewing for anyone who’s even the least bit interested in the matter.
Though one gripe is that we only see and hear the voices of Asian-American males, and no actresses. But to be fair, that would require its own documentary altogether because the barriers that they face in the industry, especially for Asian-American women, are twofold compared to men, but I digress.
My favorite part of the documentary focuses on the theories of Filipino-American filmmaker Gene Cayajon, who at about twenty-five minutes in elaborates through one of my favorite childhood movies, Romeo Must Die (2000).
There’s a film called Romeo Must Die that tells what we’re up against with regard to getting Asian-American or strong Asian male characters on-screen. And that’s essentially a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. Of course it’s one of the most famous love stories ever told, between Jet Li as Romeo and Aaliyah as Juliet. It’s a martial arts crime genre picture.
The original ending of the film had Jet Li kissing Aaliyah; and they tested it with an urban audience, and the urban audience didn’t like it. It tested so poorly the studio changed it so that there is no romantic attraction.
This is Romeo and Juliet! There’s no romantic attachment between Jet Li and Aaliyah, and for me that really points to the challenge that we’re up against in getting strong, fully developed Asian male characters on-screen.
He also says,
“Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light.”
I had vague memories of watching the movie as a nine-year-old before recently seeing it again: DMX’s cameo, Jet Li “playing” a pickup game of American football (but literally kicking everyone’s ass instead), Anthony Anderson’s hilarious performance, and its awesome soundtrack. But the ending has always been most memorable (for being a buzzkill) because as a prepubescent who idolized Jet Li and crushed on the late Aaliyah, I was at the very least expecting a smooch.
It’s certainly possible the ending got deleted because maybe the actor and actress themselves felt awkward about it, but that’s not the point in question. The real philosophical inquiry is why did it need to get tested with an audience, let alone an “urban” one in the first place?
Asian-American actors are already disadvantaged, and more often than not desexualized on-screen as well as typecast certain characteristics and archetypes — docile, nefarious, stoic, doctors, gangsters, martial artists, nerds — as if that’s supposed to be more “believable.” This is dangerous because it affects the way they’re perceived in the real world, shaping and defining their identities by way of Western dispensation.
And it’s important to remember that this isn’t an Asian-specific issue. From Ang Lee to Spike Lee, people of color are in this together because African- and Latino-Americans, Indians, Middle-Easterners, and people of other races and ethnicities are also pigeonholed into portrayals that fail to challenge our collective preconceived notions of identity.
On the other hand, white actors and actresses are the only race of people who are typically considered to be so-called “believable” in whatever roles they play, because they’re the everyman of movies. Take Kevin Costner for example, if he could hook up with Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992), then why couldn’t Jet Li and Aaliyah have sexy time, too?
Jet Li is every bit as compelling in bodily presence in being a powerful martial artist. And indeed the big Other of Hollywood, the symbolic order, and brute structure of its films — even Shakespeare himself! — dictates that these two should get it on. But nope, they instead embrace each other like a couple of toddlers. I’m not surprised that his character’s name is Han:
His destiny is to end up solo. Might as well have been titled Romeo Must Kiss.
And now more than ever, I understand why Romeo Must Die is a glaring example of the slanted screen, and how not even all the kicks in the world could shatter it until filmmakers dismantle the industry’s bamboo ceiling once and for all.