Supporting Characters No More: Asian Representation in Film & TV

By Dea Davita Krisanda

Momentum is defined as “the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity” by Merriam Webster—years of progress summed up in a word. Indeed, a momentum it is for Asian representation to be finally improved in the media. 2018 has been the year chosen to honor breathtaking roles in film and television, like Crazy Rich Asians, Killing Eve, Searching and many more—roles that would not have been understood or appreciated a decade ago. It is and will always be hard to comment about media inclusion in general. Still, such momentous strides have been made this year and it is worth commemorating. It’s a great feeling when you open Netflix and are excited to see a familiar face or to finally see your name in a callback list.

Crazy Rich Asians

With such grandiose coverage of the movie, Crazy Rich Asians became a significant pop culture hit, and broke the U.S. record as the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade (another rarity nowadays). The movie’s stellar reviews also included its glorious and exceptional all Asian cast: Fresh Off The Boat’s Constance Wu, the legendary actress Michelle Yeoh, presenter turned actor Henry Golding, rapper Awkwafina, Maniac’s newcomer Sonoya Mizuno and many more. The story’s unique commentary is based on author Kevin Kwan’s perspective on his Singaporean background and the fact that the movie revolves around this new and glamorous world is undeniable. With the critics’ mix of raves and sighs, Crazy Rich Asians is still the breakthrough of the year: director Jon M. Chu has successfully created a 21st century romantic comedy that is meaningful and does not fall under the typicalities of every other romantic comedies.

  Photo courtesy of the Crazy Rich Asians official movie website

Photo courtesy of the Crazy Rich Asians official movie website

Meteor Garden

Netflix has also done an excellent job of including more diverse involvement in its productions. In fact, Netflix is reported to be exclusively implementing a further intensive “inclusion strategy”: to integrate more cultural diversity in all of Netflix’s activities and affairs; this is important as a response to such strong actors and movements that call upon more cultural inclusion in the media. Therefore, you can expect more international content coverage from Netflix and (hopefully) other media companies. So far, they have co-created and co-distributed some original works, including the remake of Asia’s popular Taiwanese romantic comedy, called Meteor Garden. The show tells the story of a relationship between a college senior and a freshman (and their group of friends), as they begin their journey to adulthood. Hence, you can see why it is considered a staple to many youth around the world. While it still adhere to most of Asia’s social norms, which previous versions heavily relied on, this 2018 version have been updated in terms of characterizations and storylines that are not as gendered as it were before. Yes, you do have to watch it with subtitles, it is incredibly cheesy and cringe-y and sometimes the story doesn’t even add up. Even so, it is guaranteed to be worth the time—you have all Asia (mostly the women) as proof.

  Photo courtesy of IMDb

Photo courtesy of IMDb

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

Speaking of inclusion in romantic comedies, Netflix has been producing some of 2018’s best rom-coms in its original works, including To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Released just days after Crazy Rich Asians, the movie could not have come at a better time. While Kwan and Chu introduced the audience to life in Asia (or more specifically, the privileged Singaporean Chinese), author Jenny Han illustrated life from the eye of an Asian-American teenager, Lara Jean (superbly performed by the Vietnamese-American actress, Lana Condor). Condor’s portrayal was so believable that it is relatable to all audiences.

  Photo courtesy of Screenrant

Photo courtesy of Screenrant

Killing Eve

This year’s representation of Asian people were not exclusive to romantic comedies. Some film and television narratives excel on a darker note—something that works these days. One of the well received television dramas that debuted in 2018 is BBC’s Killing Eve, which tells a story about the relationship between a female detective and a female serial murderer—two field of profession that is apparently very gendered. Killing Eve marks Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh’s television comeback, in which she was applauded for her exceptional performance as the lead, that she was immediately nominated for an Emmy—the first actress of Asian descent to do so. Killing Eve was intended by its creators to be a catalyst in changing the industry concerning genre, gender and most importantly, race. Fortunately, it did achieve its goal; as mentioned in The New York Times, the “...scenes and characterizations play out differently than we’re used to.” As a result, the creators were able to develop narratives in which an Asian woman is not either whitewashed or stereotyped.

  Photo courtesy of IMDb

Photo courtesy of IMDb

Searching

While Crazy Rich Asians deserves its spotlight, the movie Searching should be recognized too. Similar to its counterpart, Searching cast an Asian as its lead, specifically the fantastic Korean-American actor, John Cho. Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, which emphasized Asian culture, Searching (like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,) explores the mundanity of the domestic lives of Asian-Americans, which to be truthful are as mundane as those of any other Americans. To further illustrate this, director Aneesh Chaganty utilizes the conflict (spoiler alert: abduction) to accentuate the humanity within Cho’s character David and his family.

  Photo courtesy of IMDB

Photo courtesy of IMDB

More...So Many More

In addition to the titles and individuals mentioned above, here are others that contributed to 2018’s Asian representation in the media:

  • Shirkers: an autobiographical documentary by Sandi Tan about her own experience as a young Singaporean filmmaker in 1992.

  • Yappie: a web series, by Wong Fu Productions, of a man’s journey of rediscovering what it means to be Asian in America

  • 88 Rising: a “hybrid management” record label, by founder Sean Miyashiro, in which majority of its artists are Asian (Rich Brian, Joji, Higher Brothers, Keith Ape, Niki, etc.), yet are inclusive to all talents.

  • Alan Yang: a Taiwanese-American writer/co-creator of the Emmy and Golden Globe winning series Master of None and the upcoming series Forever.

  • Young Jean Lee: a Korean-American playwright of the play Straight White Men: “a subversive exploration of privilege, identity, and American values”, as defined by Playbill; recently produced on Broadway (the first Asian-American to do so.)

Nonetheless, who we really should be clapping louder for are the people who stood behind these scenes, constantly contributing their groundbreaking ideas and persevering in spite of all the challenges. Therefore, while this article listed some of the best films and television programs by Asian actors and creatives in 2018, the category is not limited to those aforementioned pieces. There is a vast body of work and many creative individuals — of all backgrounds — out there that have yet to be discovered by the public. And last but not least, here is the reaction that I want to see from you: to promote this momentum forward and celebrate this moment altogether; then this would most certainly not be momentary.