INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Ford Finds Asian Americans Can’t Drive Movies

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

The lead article in the A section of The Los Angeles Times dated Tuesday, June 19, 2012 was headlined: “Asians nation’s fastest-growing group.” It reported the Pew Research Center’s study about the immigration and growth rate of the Asian population in the U.S., which has overtaken that of Latinos. It also reported that Asian immigrants are the most highly educated immigrant group in U.S. history.

On A7, same day, another article was headlined: “House apologizes for anti-Chinese laws.” This article was about how the U.S. House of Representatives officially said “sorry” for the Chinese Exclusion Act from 130 years ago. The driving force behind the apology was Rep. Judy Chu of Monterey Park.

Meantime, the featured story on page 1 of the Business section, complete with a photo of Jackie Chan at a movie premiere, was headlined: “Hollywood-China film partnerships get top billing.” This one was tied to the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival. Turns out that during this time when so many factory-made products sold here are made in China, one of the most popular — and lucrative — exports from here to there are our movies. Furthermore, Hollywood is looking to China as the latest source of chumps, er, business partners for movie financing.

Jamie Ford

Coincidentally, the same day The Times ran those stories, I had made an appointment to speak with novelist Jamie Ford of Great Falls, Mont. I wrote about Ford, a third-generation Chinese American, in my Aug. 20, 2009 column. The topic was his best-selling debut, a historical novel titled “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”

The backdrop of having these articles appear on the same day I was to talk with Ford was unintentionally ironic, especially that story about Hollywood and China. That’s because the main characters in Ford’s novel are, respectively, Chinese American and Japanese American — but while Hollywood seems eager to mainline Chinese money for making movies, it’s not, according to Ford, quite ready to adapt his million-selling book into a feature film that, presumably, might actually find an eager audience in China, not to mention other nations where “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was a hit.

A quick synopsis of the novel is that it is set in Seattle, first during the 1940s and later in the mid-1980s. The protagonist is Henry Lee as a 12-year-old boy and later as an older man nearing 60. As a boy, he falls for a girl his age but their friendship and budding romance is quashed when Keiko Okabe, her family and Seattle’s Japanese American community are uprooted by Executive Order 9066.

Henry’s old-country dad, meantime, has antipathy toward anything Japanese — even Americans of Japanese ancestry — so the idea of his son falling in love with a Japanese American girl is anathema to him. Henry begins his road toward manhood by standing up to his father, but he also surrenders his yearnings for his first love, Keiko.

Years later, as an older man, two things occur that affect Henry. One, his wife (also Chinese American like Henry) of many years dies. Two, unclaimed belongings left in storage by Japanese Americans in their haste to leave to be incarcerated during WWII are found in an abandoned Seattle hotel. Among the artifacts are things left by the Okabes.

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is Ford's debut novel.

By now you probably get an idea of the direction Ford’s novel is headed. Will Henry seek and find Keiko? If he finds her, would she even remember him? Did she feel the same way toward him as he did toward her? If so, would she want to see him again in their older years? All those questions and the story of Henry and his dad are in Ford’s book.

When I wrote my 2009 column about the book and its author, Ford told me some interesting developments. One was that the book was translated into several different languages. Since then, “Bitter and Sweet” became a smash hit in Norway. “It was the No. 1 book in Norway for four months,” Ford said. He added that it was a bestseller in Hong Kong and Italy, too.

What that translates to is “Bitter and Sweet” is a presold property in North America, Asia and Europe and presumably there are lots of folks who’d love to see the novel adapted as a feature film or possibly as a telefilm.

Speaking of turning “Bitter and Sweet” into a movie, back in 2009 I wrote that there were a couple of offers to option the book as a movie. Later published reports also had “Joy Luck Club” director Wayne Wang nibbling to help adapt it into a movie, too. Obviously, however, nothing solid happened since then. That was why I wanted to contact Ford in the first place, just to see if any progress was being made in turning the book into a movie.

A major obstacle to that happening, as I wrote at the time, is casting. But that was 2009. Things have changed since then, right? Turns out that the aforementioned news stories, not to mention the rise of NBA star Jeremy Lin this year, mean nothing when it comes to most filmmakers’ attitudes that a mainstream motion picture needs a white male lead to succeed. After all, “Slumdog Millionaire,” the “Rush Hour” movies, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and anything by Tyler Perry were full of white male lead actors and all of them were box-office stinkbombs, right?

Yes, all of Henry’s and Keiko’s families would require Asian American or Asian actors, not to mention actors who would play the duo as youngsters and then as senior citizens. Another major character is an African American jazz musician. The roles for white actors in this story would be minor.

Since 2009, Ford said he’s met with several interested producers, even as recently as a few weeks ago. “We could option it tomorrow,” he said. But there is one major sticking point: Ford won’t budge on changing the characters, i.e., turning Henry Lee from Chinese to white. “It’s a deal-buster for me,” he said.

I can’t fault him there — such a change would completely gut what makes Ford’s tale unique. Believe it or not, though, Ford said he was asked in the meetings he had with independent movie producers: “How do we mitigate the financial risks without a white male lead?” In other words, in order to get the necessary financing to make the movie, he’d need a Caucasian leading man.

Ford said the Hollywood mentality is “more about financing than creativity.” OK, I’ll have to take Hollywood’s side on that — to a point. As the old saying goes, it’s called “show business,” not “show art.” While a movie can succeed as an artistic endeavor, it must also make money.

But given the sad history of how Hollywood has generally denied, misportrayed and twisted Asian American acting, writing and directing talent, not to mention history and real-life events, I think there is something more at work here than just business concerns. No, I don’t mean a racist conspiracy or anything like that. I mean just a general tendency to not try something different with little downside that might actually succeed.

For instance, this spring Disney spent something close to $300 million on “John Carter” — complete with a white male lead — and it succeeded like wet toilet paper. How many dozens of smaller-budgeted movies could have been made for that amount with a higher cost-to-profit ratio, with maybe a couple that actually had huge paydays?

I have to go back to Jeremy Lin. Individually, he could be the face of two of the three aforementioned news stories. Yet, he was overlooked and passed over until his team, out of desperation, put him in the lineup — and he surprised everyone with how well he played. Suddenly, everyone knew who he was and NBA teams were kicking themselves. “Why didn’t we try this sooner?” Hollywood, I’m afraid, has yet to have that moment.

Meantime, as noted, the movie business is trying to woo Chinese money, yet it is not cultivating here actors and actresses who could star in those movies that Chinese people might want to see. It’s not a great leap to say that along with the mostly white movie stars that’ll be in those future Chinese-financed movies, Chinese audiences might want to see some faces with features that resemble their own in those same movies.

My hope is that some Asian American or Asian producers will step into the breach and take the chance and make a ton of money succeeding where others less intrepid dared not go. Justin Lin or Janet Yang could do it if they put their minds to it. It could even be a white male (or female) for all I care. I just know that when it happens (and it will), Hollywood will do like the NBA and ask, “Why didn’t we do that sooner?”

Back to Ford and his adventures in turning his novel into a movie, he feels the frustration more than anyone. “We’re so close,” he said, meaning not his movie, but where Asian Americans are with regard to getting represented properly in movies in general. Sadly, he feels we’re still a few years away from it happening.

For his sake, I hope Ford is wrong. It’d be a real treat to see his novel make the transition from page to screen —  and we could all go from bitter to sweet.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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