INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Asian American Doctors in Afghanistan on ‘Combat Hospital’

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on June 30, 2011.)
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This past season, ABC was a disappointment in not including many Asian Americans as regulars — and they’ll disappoint even more when the official new one begins in September. But they at least cast an Asian Canadian as a doctor in “Combat Hospital” — kind of an “ER” meets “M*A*S*H*” in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2006.

Terry Chen plays Captain Bobby Trang, who’s only had basic training but, upon his arrival, is asked to become team trauma leader and immediately finds himself in way over his head. He’s billed third after Michelle Borth (who plays Steve MacGarrett’s sometimes girlfriend in “Hawaii Five-O”), who stars as Major Rebecca Gordon, a surgeon who was just dumped by her fiance and fears she’s pregnant (turns out she’s not).

Terry Chen as Capt. Bobby Trang in “Combat Hospital.”

Second on the bill is Luke Mably, an annoying Brit who mumbles his lines and sleeps around with nurses and already has his eye on Gordon (there’s also an Australian woman in the cast who’s apparently too lazy to move her lips when she speaks). You already assume the two will “get it on” but in this week’s second episode, Gordon seeks out Trang and she reveals the part about her fiancé over coffee. It would be refreshing to see the two of them get together especially since they’re both the new kids on the block and trying to get their bearings. And besides, arrogant jerks don’t deserve any women. So there.

Ellen Wong also has a small part as one of the doctors, Suzy Chao, and the producers make use of Arab-looking locals, so it seems like a pretty integrated cast (there are a lot of black doctors, but you probably already knew that; in TV there are more black doctors than Asian ones, when in real life, the latter outnumber the former by at least 10 to 1).

The man overseeing the entire operation, Dr. Marks (Elias Koteas), at first comes off as one of those “West Wing” jerks who does monologues while walking through halls and ignores those he’s speaking to when they say something. But after Dr. Trang froze during an operation and Dr. Gordon jumped in without asking, Marks displayed his pleasant bedside manner by supporting Trang and gently informing Gordon that she undermined Trang’s confidence.

Michelle Borth as Maj. Rebecca Gordon in “Combat Hospital.”

By this week’s episode, it’s like months have passed because Trang’s confident in assessing the condition of patients and barking out orders for how to help them. Back in 2000, Terry Chen played Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong Torres in “Almost Famous.” “Combat Hospital” is created by Daniel Petrie, Jr., who, believe it or not, wrote the “Beverly Hills Cop” films. The series airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.

What Is He Anyway? Department: Earlier this month, I mentioned that in DC Comic’s latest superhero flick “Green Lantern,” the part of his sidekick Thomas Kalmaku — who’s Eskimo — appeared to go to a white guy. Well, yes and no. He’s played by Taika Waititi, a 35-year-old writer, comedian and filmmaker from New Zealand whose father is Maori and mother is Jewish. In 2003, his movie “Two Cars, One Night” received an Oscar nomination for best short (as it was called out, he pretended to be falling asleep).

In the ’60s comic book, Kalmaku was called Pieface. That’s like calling one of your Korean American co-workers Flatface. Apparently, the people at DC didn’t realize that was offensive for years. Eventually, he was just called by his real name, Tom Kalmaku, and while he started out as a mechanic at Ferris Aircraft, where test pilot Hal Jordan also worked, he eventually owned his own line of gas stations and went on to become an equal partner in Ferris.

Tom Kalmaku (Taika Waititi) reacts to seeing best friend Hal Jordan becoming Green Lantern.

He was Jordan’s best friend and the only one who knew his secret identity as Green Lantern. Carol Ferris, the daughter of the company owner, loved Green Lantern but had no interest in Hal Jordan and didn’t learn of his identity until issue #83 in 1971. In the movie, Jordan and Ferris were already past lovers and within 30 seconds of the costumed hero landing on the balcony of her office, she figures out who he is. Talk about things being lost in translation.

While the comic book showed a lot of interaction between Jordan and Kalmaku, the latter — now upgraded to an aerospace engineer — disappears midway in the motion picture version (the romantic angle with Ferris, played by Blake Lively, is played up, probably to get the female audience). And if his last name was even mentioned — I know they didn’t even hint at his Eskimo/Inuit background — I missed it. A lost opportunity especially since historically, comic book characters have been notoriously white.

The movie, which cost over $200 million to make and a lot more to promote (probably the same amount; those trailers were running on TV for over two months!) was a disappointment at the box office and is only predicted to make about $260-$270 million worldwide.

In the ’60s comic book, Tom Kalmaku helps his friend Green Lantern.

What About Us? Department: I’m always cynical about the amount of press attention given to the issues of certain groups over those of others.  “30 Rock’s” Tracy Morgan (who never takes a good picture and looks miserable and stupid in just about every shot I’ve ever seen) recently got in hot water (and deservedly) for saying at a Nashville show that if his son acted gay, he’d stab him. Some of his co-stars and even the Entertainment Chairman of NBC — who’s gay — came out (oops, wrong word!) against him.

Entertainment Weekly’s Jess Cagle wrote an editorial (it wasn’t even well-written) about how people make fun of gays without thinking and in uncreative ways. Well, first of all, at one point, it seemed as if every male writer at that magazine was gay (Michael Slezak, Adam Vary, Mark Harris, Michael Ausiello, and Cagle himself). So you’d expect them to be sensitive about gay issues. But when it comes to Asian American ones, they usually don’t give a damn.

Last year, after I had extensive email discussions with Nicole Sperling — who initially broke the news that the cast of  “The Last Airbender” was all-white and created the controversy in the first place — she decided not to do a story on the white-washed casting issue. She then went to the L.A. Times, the grand model of ignoring Asian American media issues. I’m sure she’s fitting in just perfectly there.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached via email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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