When was the last time an Asian American actor starred in a major Hollywood film as the handsome romantic lead? Exactly. Sadly, that’s been the missing scene, if you will, in U.S. studio-released motion pictures. Certainly, there’s no shortage of attractive actors of Asian ancestry in America to play those romantic roles. Yet, Hollywood studios continue ignoring them as leads. Speculation points to institutionalized racism of studio executives who still stereotype Asian men as too emasculated to play sexualized or romantic characters.
Writer/director Steven J. Kung was so troubled by the obvious exclusion of Asian American actors as leads that he made a movie about it. In A Leading Man, Kung pontificates about disparity in the film industry through a young, urbane actor named GQ Qi (Jack Yang). While GQ considers himself leading-man material, he can’t seem to convince casting directors of it. That’s not surprising given that he’s Taiwanese American. He can look glamorous in a white collar, cuffs, and tie. He can sip elegantly from a wineglass without spilling a drop. He can even “get the girl.” But how come the suave and sophisticated GQ can’t get a role that doesn’t require speaking heavily accented broken English?
After winning the role of a foreign exchange student on a TV series, GQ is elated until he learns that the producer sees his character as a caricature. After all, what student from China meets his American host family dressed in a Chinese silk jacket and coolie hat? But that’s what producer Bruno Oliver (Mitch Lebowitz) requests of GQ. In fact, he demands that GQ be “more Chinese” by bucking his teeth and talking as if he were illiterate. With the name Kung Pao (yes, as in the spicy stir-fried dish), GQ’s character seems to endlessly bow and scrape to the white family he lives with. When GQ protests a scene where Kung Pao erects a shrine to his ancestors at the dinner table, Bruno is livid. As far removed from a leading man as he can get, GQ finally loses his cool and is promptly fired.
Already under pressure by his mother to get a real job with the family business in Taiwan, GQ is ashamed to admit he’s no longer employed. At restaurant gatherings with his extended family (that seem to be disproportionately comprised of Harvard grads), he’s already the butt of their jokes over his inability to pick up the tab. Seriously considering his options, GQ begins dating a powerful white female casting director, Rachel, very capably played by Heather Mazur. Although GQ’s intentions aren’t all that honorable, Rachel is sincere about her feelings, which makes their situation a sticky one. Hoping Rachel can salvage his career, GQ soon moves in with her.
Unfortunately, GQ’s not exactly a likeable character. Tall, dark, and handsome, he possesses a cocky demeanor along with an unexplained passion for acting. Perhaps that’s attributable to his ease at portraying made-up characters rather than being his authentic self—some others might recoil from: like, his former roommate whom he betrays or a fellow Asian American actor who betrays him. Surely, GQ’s self-centeredness and love for his expensive Porsche are in deep contrast to his burst of political consciousness at an audience Q&A for the TV show that dismissed him.
Gazing at his wall covered with posters of Asian American movie stars James Shigeta, Sessue I. Hayakawa and Mako—all sex symbols of the past, GQ laments to his mother (Pat Tsao) over the lack of leading roles since that time. Tsao has impeccable comedic timing. She also happens to be director Kung’s real mom.
“I will add you to my Facebook,” she promises GQ’s girlfriend, Rachel, while whispering to her son, “She’s not that cute. You can do better.”
Both entertaining and educational, A Leading Man is no fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. Instead, it puts the issue of the absent Asian American lead actor squarely on the table.
Coincidentally, a TV sitcom about real-life chef Eddie Huang growing up in Florida with his Taiwanese immigrant family is currently being broadcast on ABC. Called Fresh Off the Boat, the show has already elicited controversy by using a title that’s considered a derogatory phrase. Producers promise to present a positive story. The plot is about recent immigrants and not an assimilated family that’s been in the U.S. for several generations. While it’s commendable that any Asian Americans at all are given media exposure, there’s a potential danger in highlighting a family with parents who have funny accents and get American customs all mixed up. Margaret Cho’s series, All-American Girl, premiered 20 years ago and was panned by Asian Americans for some of the same reasons.
Obviously, Asians star in Asian films in Asian countries. But in the United States, Americans of Asian ethnicities are still viewed as outsiders and not accepted as mainstream by the media. Unless they’re martial arts instructors, nerds, or sexually unappealing, Asian men are rarely cast in Hollywood films. And, like Kung so persuasively illustrates, they’re not allowed to be leading men either.
A Leading Man screens as part of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival at Northwest Film Forum Screen 2 (small theater) on Sunday, February 15 at 3:00 p.m. Q&A with Director Steven Kung. Co-presented by Kollaboration Seattle and Vancouver Asian Film Festival.