Man, that looks like a great movie. Lots of kung-fu and comedy, and it’s got the bad guy from Inglorious Basterds! Right on! But hold the Gas Gun — there’s something more to this movie. Something deeper than what others may care or even bother to see or understand. Something bigger in this picture. Something that is important.
The Green Hornet is more than just an exciting new film with some familiar faces. There’s one face in particular that matters. There is something so incredible to gain if the film succeeds with the man playing the right role at the right time.
What is at stake? Mainstream acceptance.
What is the role? Kato.
Who is the man? Jay Chou.
Those that have known me long enough quickly recognize my apathy towards Hollywood, and I don’t mean that in the hipster, “mainstream sucks” kind of way. Rather, I am apathetic towards a long-running trend that has almost become a tradition, a tradition that silently swats attempts success wherever they can find it. It’s been a struggle ever since film was even created, as cultural trends that once seem outdated tend to last for generations. This trend I speak of is the undermining (and seemingly unintentional) trend of absence of Asian American leading men and women in mainstream films.
Let’s get something out of the way so I don’t have to explain it later, because the point of this post isn’t this issue but I do have to mention it. The Green Hornet was originally a radio series and comic book that is also famous for its 1960s television program. The show ran for one season and was canceled due to low ratings, but was best remembered for its duo cast: the womanizing Reid (played by Van Williams) and the bodyguard ass kicker, Kato (played by Bruce Lee). It has long been a part of the Bruce Lee legacy that rightfully stands on its own, continuing as a comic book series even today, one series in particular written by my own hero, Jersey boy Kevin Smith.
The casting of Kato was a delicate and troublesome affair for the studio, and for many reasons. There was a very specific criteria that, interestingly, the 1960’s lucked out on, but we lack in the 21st century. Kato had to be of Asian descent, speak English, and kick ass. Why couldn’t they find this guy? He has to be out there somewhere. I mean, what about that John Cho guy, that Harold fellow?
For some reason or another, they casted Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou. And like all news with pop singers, I screamed like a little girl.
Jay Chou. Jay Chou. Jay freaking Chou. I had been a fan of his music ever since I learned to
surf LimeWire YouTube. I don’t know a damn word he says, but his beats are extremely catchy and also unique. In one song, he manages to use dial tones and a Latin choir as a beat and it sounds more bad ass than I just described. It was his music video for Jet Li’s Fearless that got me hooked on his music. When I learned how to embed, which took all of two seconds, that shit stayed on my MySpace page for two whole years.
And now it will be here FOREVER (until the next page)!
So there’s that. Jay Chou, Bruce Lee, and the Green Hornet legacy. But there’s more to this than meets the eye. I’m ignoring a Transformers joke.
When film was starting to rise as a commercial product in the early 20th century, it was the same time many immigrants came to America seeking a better life, and what many was almost anything but. Also some stuff about war. Since this is an entertainment blog and I’m not a sociology major, let’s just say Batman fought villains that seem just a little outdated.
Try to understand, however. It was simply a different time. Throughout all of time our cultural attitudes change, for better or for worse. We hope they’re almost always better. I remember a story my media professor told me, when he was in grade school he was teased for being Jewish, and when he went to the school authorities they flat out told him he better get used to it.
It has been a struggle everywhere for everyone to find acceptance in mainstream American films, not just Asians or Asian Americans. And yes, we need to focus on American films, here. We dominate the film market world wide, what we release goes into theaters everywhere.
It’s simple communication. We send out messages with the intention the audience interprets them correctly. But the message sent is almost never the same as it was received, and thus our interpretations can lead to disastrous results. It’s general reinforcement that shapes generations but largely goes unnoticed. What has happened is that by constantly casting Asians in a villainous role, be it Batman or James Bond, or unattractive and unheroic dorks like Short Round and Long Duk Dong, it has tampered with progress in seeing the circumstances as anything but. Jet Li took a backseat role in The Expendables, and the only successful mainstream martial arts movie that has come out lately was Ninja Assassin. And Rain’s face was obscured in the poster.
It’s an unfortunate tradition that could happen to anyone, and in fact, has. Name any other ethnicity and take a look at your DVD collection. How many times are African Americans the supporting best friend, or the first to die in horror movies? How often are Hispanic Americans portrayed as gang bangers? How many times is the hot chick hot? And don’t white boys ever get tired of being just so damn dashing? Not Another Teen Movie parodied these presumptions rather well, and Italian-Americans more than just a little pissed when The Godfather came out decades ago.
There’s no one reason for it. It’s just a reflection of our views, and our views in turn are reflected into our arts and media. Not just in films, but also advertisements, music, even sports. We have, for some reason, associated ethnic types with types of people, which isn’t entirely true in real life, but merely presumptions made based on general and sometimes initial impressions. And there’s not much to do to change this. But as grim as I sound to be, believe me, there has been progress.
It has been a long and arduous journey, and it has only just begun, but there has been change occurring, at least in films. Load up Netflix if you have an account and check out the independent category. You will see a generally more daring and less commercially safe casting habit than what you may expect. But why is it like this? Why is it these films can but mainstream can’t? That part is simple.
Mainstream movies are created by large investors as well as established studios and production houses. These are the films you’ve seen with your parents and your friends at the mall. These films usually have to please the investors who gave them money in the first place to create it, and it makes sense. Therefore, they have to attract that “wide audience,” this anonymous yet breathing monster crowd willing to shell out money. Because it is “for everyone,” and since people almost always relate to “themselves” on screen, a multiracial cast will almost always be demanded… as the supporting cast. The lead? Well, they like a type of Asian. Caucasian.
Independent movies are just that, independent from a studio and usually have a few investors helping them out. They then seek out studios to assist in distributing their product. Some make it big, many don’t, and they all end up for $7 at Walmart. But because they are truly “independent” (to an extent), they approach their projects with a much more daring spirit and little concern over what is or isn’t appropriate or approachable. Mind you, this doesn’t mean all independent films are good, they are just more daring. That isn’t always a good thing.
But slowly and surely, these indie attitudes are the “cool” thing, and whatever becomes “cool” may bleed into the mainstream. And that’s where The Green Hornet comes in.
Angry Asian Man, a blog about the Asian community within the arts and entertainment field, posted this about a year and a half ago. A guy who auditioned for the role of Kato (an English-speaking Asian ass kicker exists! Whuddathunkit?) posted his view on the role he was exposed to so far. As I mentioned before, the film was in a bit of a development hell, one of the hurdles being the casting of Kato. Initially, Stephen Chow (of Kung-Fu Hustle fame) was the man to play as well as direct (!), but the deal went through and the filmmakers kept searching. Many names were tossed, and I’m confident that John Cho’s name was also (he recently made a joke about it on Twitter). Eventually the role went to Jay Chou, but that was later down the road. This post was made when the decision was up in the air. This is what he said.
With all this talk of casting a South Korean (which I’m glad is incorrect), me and my friends (who also happen to be Asian American actors) feel this is a major crossroads for Asian Americans in Hollywood. The role of Kato is a huge breakout role, which is made all the more breakout due to the excellent script. Upon reading the sides for Kato, it’s easy to see that the role of Kato is one of the most developed and layered Asian roles EVER to come out of Hollywood.
Seth Rogen was smart to make a play on the backstory of the The Green Hornet, and highlight the fact that Bruce Lee was the real hero of the series. Van Williams as Brit Reid was merely a glory hogging womanizer, and Bruce Lee as Kato was the true talent. The new Green Hornet, then becomes something of a satire of the original series and gives Asian Americans and the model minority element its due, by revealing that Kato is really the unsung hero of the duo, with Seth Rogen playing The Green Hornet something of a pompous ass. But the essence of the film comes from the bro-mance dynamic of the two, and essentially fashions the story as a Superbad of superhero movies.
When you read the script, it’s clearly meant for an actor with American sensibilities with a familiarity of American humor. Which is why all this talk of bringing in a foreign import as Kato is quite upsetting. A foreign born actor with limited English skills would quite certainly fail at the role, especially when matched with the improv-heavy Seth Rogen. And while we understand the need for big box office appeal, more than anything we, as actors, and as Asian Americans, want to see the role of Kato done with justice, as it has the potential to break barriers.
All we really care about is seeing the right person be selected as Kato, because in the end, if that goes well, we ALL win.
I long to break in the entertainment business. I once dreamed of being an actor, but when I learned of my limits, both in talent and in appearance, I knew it was a pipedream. It is why I know chase to be in the director’s chair, to be in some sort of control. If I can’t be in front of the camera then I will sure as hell will be behind it. I do hope to someday eradicate presumptions and stereotypes with my films, but I think I need to take it slow first. Still, it’s great knowing big movies like The Green Hornet are paving the way. While I would love to be a trailblazer, it helps to know that people are rallying for the same cause. In the end, even if The Green Hornet fails to break that glass ceiling and Asians are still playing sexless assistants in the years to come, at least I know for a fact that we’ve tried. And we can always try again. And we can try again for all.
Now let’s just hope the movie doesn’t suck.