INTO THE NEXT STAGE: The Politics Behind Getting an Asian American Star in ‘21 and Over’

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By GUY AOKI

It was encouraging to see trailers for “21 and Over” because it focused on two white friends trying to help their best friend (Justin Chon) celebrate his 21st birthday. It’s rare that Asian American characters get to be that prominent in a film. The names of the actors playing his friends Casey (Skylar Astin) and Miller (Miles Teller), come first in the credits with Chon in the third slot.

Casey and Miller surprise their best friend from high school, JeffChang (comically, the pair never call him by only his first name, so in the end credits, Chang’s first and last names are smashed together without a space!), wanting to take him drinking to mark his becoming legal. But he says he can’t because he has an 8 a.m. interview to get into medical school that his stern father (“Lost’s” Francois Chau) set up, and he can’t blow it.

Long story short, JeffChang is forced to go out with them but ends up getting carried away. Even when his friends warn him he’s had enough to drink and should probably go back home, he calls them wussies (well, OK, that’s the G-rated version of what he actually said) and is determined to party on. He passes out for most of the rest of the film as Casey and Miller go through a series of challenges simply to speak to people who might know where their friend lives.

If you don’t want to hear the entire plot of this film, skip the next paragraph.

The movie has heart built into it. Towards the end, we learn a secret about Miles’ collegiate status, and the two white friends learn that JeffChang actually tried to kill himself during the past year. Turns out he was studying non-stop and the stress just got to him. After they finally get him back home in time for his dad to pick him up for that interview, Chang admits he doesn’t want to become a doctor; he’s not even good in science (we learned earlier he had to be tutored in it). In a blow for independence from clichéd career expectations of immigrant parents, Chang ends up telling his dad he’s not going to the interview nor to med school. Instead, he might travel around the world and maybe write songs.

OK, so there’s a redeeming social message in all of this, especially for Asian Americans. There’s also some funny racial humor. At one point, Casey and Miller bring a passed-out JeffChang to an Asian female student’s door, asking her if she knows him. She gets offended, asking, “Why, because I’m Asian?! We don’t all know each other, you racist m*th*rf*ck*r! … Oh wait, I do know this guy.” Pretty funny. And beyond being the stern Asian father, Chau gets to show he’s tough against some thugs.

Nothing personal, but I wish the filmmakers had chosen someone other than Chon. In the film, one of his friends cracks that he looks “like a 9-year-old Chinese girl,” and that’s not far from the truth. He looks a bit too feminine and young for my tastes.

The writers of this film, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, wrote the first draft of the original “Hangover” movie and they direct this one, their first effort. Despite expectations, there’s far more male nudity than female (darn!).

Why was an Asian American featured so prominently in this project? It probably doesn’t hurt that Moore was born and raised in Honolulu and graduated from Punahou High School. But the main reason for Chon’s inclusion is because this was Relativity Media’s first co-production with China, and in order to satisfy Chinese officials, there had to be a significant Chinese component in the film. In fact, Relativity shot some extra scenes in China to create a Chinese version of the movie where Chon is not an American kid who happens to be Asian, but a Chinese exchange student who gets carried away with “American ways” and returns to his home country the wiser.

OK, but politics aside, this is a movie worth supporting as we need to see more films where Asian Americans are just seen as regular people. In its opening weekend, “21 and Over” came in third at the box office, grossing $8.8 million, and fell 42% to $5.1 million this past weekend for a total of $16.8 million. It only cost $13 million to make and should gross at least $25 million, so this will probably be regarded as a success. Maybe there’ll even be a sequel?…

Friends Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) help JeffChang (Justin Chon, center), celebrate his 21st birthday.

Lord Give Me Strength Department: I had no interest in seeing “Emperor,” the movie about Gen. MacArthur’s trip to Japan post-War World II to determine the fate of Hirohito. The clichéd white man/Asian female romance in the trailers was enough to make me gag. When I read it wasn’t even historically accurate, I wanted to throw up even more. Even though it’s one of those films opening slowly across the country, it only brought in $1 million over the weekend for a per-theater gross of $4,010, which is not that impressive. This one may not catch on. Awwwww….

On the Other Hand Department: Two columns ago, I talked about Amber (Clara Mamet), the teenager of the human family on “The Neighbors” who realized she’s falling for Reggie Jackson, the alien teenager played by Korean American Tim Jo. Two weeks ago, both families went on a camping trip. Since they weren’t allowed to use any electronic devices, Reggie spent all of his time “texting” his girlfriend Giselle by writing down messages on paper. Amber tried to get him to loosen up and join her in the lake. Being an alien not used to human customs, he saw no logical reason to. So she walked away, frustrated, pointing out, “Paper texting is not a thing. You’re just writing a letter!”

Later, at night, Reggie joined Amber on the wharf, telling her, “You burned my paper texts!” She let on that he sucks as a friend because he’s ignored everyone since getting his girlfriend.

“Wow,” he responded, “Guess I didn’t realize you even missed me!” “Well, I do!  So suck it.” Reggie jumped in the water, and Amber joined him.

“Hey,” Reggie realized, “this is fun!” She splashed him, and he liked it even more, so he began splashing himself in the face until Amber told him he’s supposed to splash her. When they got close enough to kiss, Amber looked vulnerable, and Reggie felt uncomfortable, saying, “We should get back.”

Last week, Amber rejected her Dad’s offer to teach her driving, and she wound up with a crazy driver’s ed teacher. In the end, Reggie offered her a perspective she hadn’t considered: “Amber, when I first started school, I had to ask you for help a thousand times a day with my fashion, my slang, with my cool guy walk—“

“The walk still needs work.”

“I don’t think so! Maybe you thought I was lame that I needed so much of your help. But I just felt lucky to have you. (Guitar music starts) It’s not a crutch to have people who want to help, Amber. It’s a gift.”

She thanked him for the advice, then he walked away strutting, which led to a rare smile from the sourpuss, brooding teenager.

Now, this is a “non-traditional Asian male/white female romance” I can get behind (take that, “Emperor,” “Come See the Paradise,” “Year of the Dragon,” “Karate Kid II,” ad infinitum!). By the way, I’m looking forward to seeing George Takei’s upcoming guest appearance as the father of the head alien Larry Bird. Hmm, guess that means Takei’s Asian gene skipped a generation, hence his grandson played by Tim Jo…

“The Neighbors” airs Wednesdays at 8:30 on ABC.

Clara Mamet as Amber and Tim Jo as Reggie.

Whew! Department: “The Mindy Project,” starring Mindy Kaling, hasn’t been attracting great ratings, usually hovering around the 1.5 rating in the 18-49 age group, which advertisers care about more than the total (older) viewing audience. Critics feel it’s getting better, finding its legs, though, and Fox decided to renew it for a second season.

It’s important because this is the first series in four-and-a-half years to star an Asian American. If “Mindy” hadn’t been renewed or perceived as a success, other networks might’ve been reluctant to greenlight another series starring one of us. So congratulations to Fox.

The only other television series starring an Asian person to get a second season was “Martial Law” (Sammo Hung) on CBS.

Insult to Injury Department: When the October trailer for the third “Iron Man” film was released in October, officials in China noticed there were no Chinese people or settings in it. This raised a ruckus because the movie’s a co-production with Marvel/Disney Films and as such, China expects there to be a substantial presence of both. So in December, Marvel announced they’d added roles for a Dr. Wu and his assistant. But when the latest trailer arrived last week, we saw only one shot of Wu and another of Chinese children cheering as Iron Man blasted into the air. Both lasted less than a second apiece. Talk about a superficial appeasement. So this satisfies Chinese officials? Pfft!

Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays the villainous Mandarin, continues to be extremely annoying with his speech pattern of curving his R’s to ridiculous extremes. In this one, he vows, “You’ll neverrrr see meee… coming…” Wish we didn’t have to hear you either.

“Iron Man 3” opens May 3.

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 at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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2 Comments

  1. Guy has these impossible (racist) ideals and everything that doesn’t conform makes him want to throw up. The dude must barf a lot.

  2. I think you have your wires crossed concerning the reasons behind the China version of the Iron Man trailer. Your understanding may perhaps be colored by your own pet peeves and it would be a shame if you readers were misled.

    There was not a “ruckus” raised with respect to underrepresentation, as seems to be implied above. The PRC is an empire nation of over a billion Chinese with Asians everywhere on TV, commercials, print, etc. The Chinese are not insecure about their place in the world and a few Asians more or less in an American movie trailer is hardly the cause of identity issues for the government or the people.

    China does, however, have strict quotas on the number of non-Chinese films that are allowed theatrical releases in a given year. The producers of Iron Man III were hoping to get around the quota by being classified as a Chinese co-production. More and more studios are trying to achieve this status as it is often the only way that they will have profitable access to the Chinese market. (Films that don’t get theater releases in China, of course, get bootlegged and sold as illegal DVDs on the streets, but the studios don’t see any revenue from that.)

    For reasons too complicated to go into here, Disney, Marvel, and DMG are probably not going to get co-production status after all. But that was the reason for the China version of the trailer. It may only have added a few more seconds here and there, but it stressed China’s involvement just a bit more.

    In the end, the Chinese officials you speak of were probably not satisfied. But the point is that this was not a racial issue. The concern was whether China’s involvement extending into the physical production of the film (which the second of Chinese children cheering that you mention would have shown as it was evidence of on the ground work in China) or whether DMG was really more of an investing partner.