(Originally published here on September 14 in the South China Morning Post.)
In Arthur Dong’s documentary Hollywood Chinese, we see Taiwan-born American director Justin Lin at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where his largely self-financed feature film Better Luck Tomorrow was screened.
The film depicts Asian-American high school students rebelling against the marginalisation they had to endure because of the assumptions that others make about them, and shows them descending into a vortex of theft, violence and drug use.
It was a much-needed antidote to the catastrophically racist depictions of Asians like Long Duk Dong in the 1984 teen comedy Sixteen Candles, and countless other slights that Lin saw when he was growing up.
During the question-and-answer session at Sundance, a white audience member asked Lin, who stood with the actors and crew, the following question: “Why would you, with the talent up there and yourself, make a film that is so empty and so immoral for Asian-Americans?”
Here we see someone who has just watched a groundbreaking film that challenges the idea that Asian-Americans are obliged to behave in a particular way, tell an Asian-American filmmaker what kind of content is off limits to him. And, to boot, he apparently suggests that Lin cannot expect to have an audience outside the Asian community.
In his zeal to suggest that filmmakers should do more to promote the richness of Chinese culture, he failed to see that he was trying to put Lin in a box labelled “Asian”, much like the situation that the characters in Lin’s film were fighting against.
Twenty years later, we see Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Leung Chiu-wai leading a mostly Asian cast in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a movie from a genre that now dominates American cinema.
Whereas American teens laughed at a nerdy Asian on the big screen in 1984, they are now laughing with Awkwafina, Liu and Leung – and being captivated by their strength and fortitude – in packed theatres across the country.
If there’s any room for criticism here, it’s the probability that superhero films are smothering our ability to confront real-life issues, the way films like award-winning pictures such as Moonlight and Nomadland did.
Marvel Studio films “are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes,” director Martin Scorsese said in a 2019 New York Times opinion piece that sparked controversy within the industry.
Much like online gaming (where there’s much overlap with Marvel films), that is a separate discussion with no clear answer. Also, it has nothing to do with race, so let’s instead focus on the fact that Liu et al are now superheroes in a film directed by an American of partially Japanese ancestry.
If they fulfil the demands of American audiences, we all win.
It will give them the freedom that all good actors, directors and cinematographers want: to tell stories that are meaningful to them regardless of whether there’s a Chinese cultural element, whether electrifying like Lin’s Fast and Furious films, existential like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm or sentimental like Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: the Sent Down Girl. (For a fascinating tour of these efforts, back to Marion Wong’s World-War-I-era film The Curse of Quon Gwon, watch Dong’s documentary.)
Their emergence as American cultural fixtures is one of the few things the US has going for it in an era of scorched-earth politics. This acceptance of, and even enthusiasm for, diversity on the big screen is a natural result of demographic trends that have made minorities more visible – about 40 per cent of the US population now identify with a race or ethnic group other than white.
It’s also a big part of the reason that the American far right has worked to undermine democracy with increasingly burdensome voter restrictions. We should resist, but not fear, them. As the popularity of Shang-Chi, Black Panther and Wonder Woman suggest, they are losing.
And, hopefully, there will no longer be a need for documentaries about Chinese or Asians in American cinema.