According to “Crazy Rich Asians” and “In the Heights” filmmaker Jon M. Chu, many of the depictions of Asian women he’s seen portrayed in Hollywood films are “not the Asian women that we know.”
“That’s not my mother, not my grandmother, not my sister, not my best friend,” Chu said during a virtual panel presented Tuesday by United Talent Agency (UTA) in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The lineup for the virtual event — called “The State of AAPI Representation in Film, TV & Culture” — was made up of UTA clients Chu, actors Fala Chen and Daniel Wu, and Mary Lee, head of film at A-Major Media, as well as Paula Madison, chair and CEO of Madison Media Management. The conversation was co-moderated by UTA partner and TV literary agent David Park and UTA’s Asia business development executive Emily Song, and intended to spotlight the AAPI experience in Hollywood from multiple creative angles. The discussion also explored how the industry can evolve into a more inclusive environment and challenged those in power to enact real change.
Chen, who will portray Jiang Li in “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” called the upcoming Marvel Studios film “a major project for our community” as many of her Asian American actor friends are still being auditioned to play foreigners, which she believes is very problematic.
“I get auditions for best friend, best girlfriend, a doctor who appears in one scene and tells the protagonist that he has cancer, things like that,” Chen said. “We just need more complex, important roles that tell our experiences as an immigrant; as someone with an accent, but also American; but also someone who’s second or third-generation American, born and raised here who actually don’t speak any language other than English.”
This conversation comes at a time when Hollywood is in the middle of a major overhaul, as the industry tries to rebound from production stoppages due to the ongoing pandemic while also facing its history of systemic racism, under which AAPI creators and talent have often gone underutilized and under-appreciated. In this time where “cinema is hurting,” Chu said the fresh perspective of Asian American creatives is “going to save movies because these are the stories that have not been told yet.”
“Marvel is keeping a lot of it afloat. But talk about a cinematic universe — how about the Asian diaspora as a cinematic universe?” Chu said. “Those are angles that people have not seen. We’ve got to keep doing as many stories we can, otherwise, you just get lost in the shuffle.”
When the question was raised about what will happen to the progress being made with regard to representation when the industry (and the world) begins to rebound post-pandemic, Chu responded: “Normalcy is over.”
“[The industry is] going to a new normal and we’re going to participate,” Chu said. “Our participation happens with people like us on the street and others out there who don’t even know that they’re going to be the voice that speaks for us.”
Wu, who has appeared in “Into the Badlands” and “Tomb Raider,” pointed out that there is a feeling of unity this year that hasn’t been seen before during AAPI Heritage Month.
“The Asian American community is very complex,” Wu said. “It’s not a monolith, there are so many cultures and languages, and I think that’s what’s kept us apart over time. I think these incidents of the past year have galvanized us and united us.”
While Wu believes that “the door has just cracked open” for Asian American representation, he adds that it’s important to keep the momentum going.
“It’s not a trend that the door stays open,” Wu said. “We push it open further and further, get our products in there, get our stories out there and get our part of American fabric back into the picture.”
Lee, who serves as the head of film at A-Major Media, said mentorship is really important to help guide the younger generation of AAPI creatives coming into the business of entertainment. Along with that, she said putting money into certain initiatives like UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report will help create a tangible sense of where more work needs to be done.
When the conversation turned to fueling the next generation of AAPI creatives, the panelists were asked to give examples of new stories that could be told on the big screen. Wu pitched two ideas, one of which would tell the real-life story of the Japanese American soldiers who fought for the United States during World War II. He also mentioned the Flying Tigers, who were a group of Asian American and white pilots recruited by President Franklin Roosevelt to train Chinese forces for their battle against the Japanese.
Madison, the author of “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China,” said it’s important for studio executives to pay attention to who comprises their audience. But, she also noted that all members of the Asian diaspora must come together to ensure as many protections, terms of fairness and parity as possible.
“It may involve shaking off the whole notion that we’re going to be quiet, that we’re going to bend with the wind,” Madison said. “Maybe what we’re going to do is stand up tall in a martial arts position.”