Movies That Should Have Starred Asians (TV Edition): Mad Men


Around the time Mad Men was making its debut on AMC eight years ago, I was coming off my first “business” trip to South Korea (the place of my birth) and experiencing the very different work culture I encountered—the drinking, smoking, carousing, casual sexism. Not that those things don’t exist here, but there was more of an openness about those things over there that felt a little…for a lack of a better word, retro.

I didn’t start watching Mad Men until its fourth season, but the world of the show very much reminded me of the time I had spent with my Korean business colleagues. I had met Korean versions of characters like the confident but conflicted Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the weasel-y Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and the ambitious Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss)—in fact, they felt more stereotypically “Asian” to me than the white folks I knew. Which isn’t to say that’s the only reason why I’m writing about it for this series though I think its popularity in Asia has a lot to do with it being so identifiable.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: Hollywood Musical Edition

Photoshop courtesy of Offender David

Photoshop courtesy of Offender David

Sony just released the first trailer for their upcoming reboot of the musical Annie. Starring Beast of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhane Wallis as the titular character who is “adopted” by Jamie Foxx’s billionaire mayoral candidate, this version adds a little bit of African American flavah to a tried-and-true musical classic and, at least from the trailer, looks like this could lead to a fresh and fun take:

So could a similar formula be applied to Asians? Here are my choices for 5 Hollywood musicals that weren’t created with Asians in mind (so no Flower Drum Song or The King and I), but with some slight adjustments could be re-worked into an Asian or Asian American story.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians (TV Edition): Breaking Bad

Breaking Sung

I think one could reasonably make the argument that Breaking Bad may not only be the best drama on television right now, but possibly the best dramatic series to ever grace the small screen. The story of seemingly meek, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who decides to cook meth to provide for his family and eventual evolves into the vicious drug lord “Heisenberg” has consistently maintained a level of excellence and with only one eagerly-anticipated episode left to go tomorrow night, it doesn’t look like it’ll break that pattern.

Like many of the iconic dramas of this new Golden Age of television that started with The Sopranos in 1999, Breaking Bad revolves around a middle-aged white male protagonist—think also Mad Men’s Don Draper or The Shield’s Vic Mackey or Boardwalk Empire’s Enoch Thompson or House of Card’s Francis Underwood or Tony Soprano himself.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: The Amazing Spider-man

If there ever was a superhero that deserves to be Asian American, it’s our friendly, neighborhood Spider-man.

Let’s examine the evidence for this, shall we?

Let’s start by taking a look at Spider-man’s alter ego, Peter Parker. He’s a bit of a geek and an outsider who doesn’t really fit in with his classmates. He’s incredibly intelligent and has a special aptitude for science. If that’s not enough of the Asian American “Model Minority” stereotype for you, let’s not forget that Peter’s also a photographer—taking pictures a.k.a. another Asian stereotype. Hell, even his name is just two letters from being Asian. Just erase the “er” from his last name and you have…Peter Park.

And notice something else “Asian-y” when he puts on that mask:

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: Taxi Driver

Regular readers of this blog already know how huge an influence the work of director Martin Scorsese has had on me. Which isn’t really news considering his movies have probably directly or indirectly influenced everyone who has pursued a career in film since the mid-1970s. But reading the new book Conversations With Scorsese reminded me that the work of many Asian and Asian American filmmakers, everyone from John Woo to my fellow Offender Justin, owe a big debt to Scorsese as well, particularly his “gangster” films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas. And while I get that appeal since no one did that genre better than Scorsese, it struck me that his most “Asian American” film isn’t one of his gangster flicks, but rather his classic 1976 exploration of urban alienation…Taxi Driver.

In the film, Robert DeNiro is Travis Bickle, a mentally unbalanced Vietnam vet living in New York City. Suffering from insomnia, he takes a job driving taxis at night and finds himself both repelled and fascinated by the less than desirable neighborhoods his nocturnal journeys take him through. He meets two women—a “madonna” in the form of Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy who is a campaign worker for a Senatorial candidate and a “whore” in the form of Jodie Foster’s 12-year-old prostitute Iris. Travis decides he must “save” the two women but when both reject him, he goes on a violent rampage.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: It’s A Wonderful Life

There may be no other movie that’s more beloved at this time of year than Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s hard to find any other director whose work better represented “traditional” American values than Capra and It’s A Wonderful Life may be the most American of any of his films: all-American James Stewart is George Bailey—an everyman living in the small town of Bedford Falls who sees his life as a failure and decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve before heavenly intervention, in the form of angel-in-training Clarence, saves the day.

But when you closely examine the film, it’s easy to see how much its traditional Americana resembles the Asian American experience.

But first, a little background on the film. Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story The Greatest Gift, It’s A Wonderful Life was met with mixed reviews and a weak box office return upon its initial release. Capra, who was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors with previous efforts like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, never fully recovered from his movie’s poor reception and his career never again reached the heights that it had in the past.

The story might have ended there, but a real-life Christmas miracle took place. Due to various factors, the copyright on the film was not renewed so during the 1970s and 1980s, anyone could air the movie or even release it on video without worrying about the rights. And they did…a lot, especially around the Christmas holidays. Because it was cheap and appropriate for the season, It’s A Wonderful Life played everywhere and anywhere during this time of year, but what happened because of that was more and more people re-discovered it, eventually making it the Christmas classic it is today.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: Casablanca

A few months ago in honor of the series finale of the TV show Lost, Offender David and I paid tribute to the characters of Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) by imagining them as the leads of some of the most romantic films of the past (see post here). One of my choices was the 1942 classic Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and I wanted to expand on that idea here.

If you’ve never seen Casablanca (and if you haven’t, I strongly suggest you do so immediately), it’s the story of American ex-pat Rick (Bogart) who runs a bar in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during the height of World War II. Rick’s a loner who doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. That is until the day when she walks into his gin joint—his former love Ilsa (Bergman)—the woman who broke his heart when she left him without any explanation. She’s arrived with her husband who is an Allied resistance leader and Rick is the only one who can obtain the transit papers they need to escape to America before the Nazis close in on them. Rick is forced to choose between the woman he still loves (and who still loves him) and the greater cause.

The idea I proposed for the “Asian Casablanca” in my previous blog was to keep the World War II setting but move the action to Shanghai, which may have been the most global, cosmopolitan city in Asia during this time. Rick is now a Korean ex-pat running a bar in the city. Ilsa is his former love also from Korea who walks into Rick’s gin joint with her husband—a Korean resistance fighter on the run from the Japanese Imperial Army (Korea was under Japanese colonial rule). They need the transit papers that only Rick can get in order to escape to America to join the Korean American community there working to win freedom for Korea.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: The Godfather

Why hasn’t there been an Asian American gangster film that’s successfully crossed over yet? There have certainly been plenty of them made—every year there seems to be at least one or two independently produced titles on the Asian American film festival circuit. And certainly if you look at other racial/ethnic communities in the U.S., they are well represented in this genre which suggests on some level that it should be a genre that our filmmakers could use to break through. Some examples: African American (Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society), Latino (American Me, Scarface—albeit it had a non-Latino lead), Irish American (State of Grace, The Departed), Jewish American (Once Upon A Time In America) and, of course, Italian American (Mean Streets, Goodfellas).

But the gold standard for ethnic gangster films (or any gangster film, really) is The Godfather and its first sequel (which I’ve previously blogged about here). And today, I’d like to look at that masterpiece as a way to discuss the topic of Asian Americans and the gangster movie.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians (TV Edition): 30 Rock

Regular readers of this feature know I focus on movies that I think could have starred Asians, but today want to take a slight detour to write about a television series instead. And not just any television series, but what may very well be the most brilliant and funny 30 minutes of TV on the air at the moment…30 Rock.

30 Rock was created by and stars Tina Fey as Liz Lemon–the quirky, smart and slightly neurotic head writer of the fictional Saturday Night Live-esque sketch comedy show where the series is set. Fey, who started her TV career on SNL, has admitted to bringing a lot of autobiographical elements to 30 Rock and that Liz is like herself “five or six years ago when I first started at my job and had to figure out how to deal with big, strong personalities and get through the day, being sort-of scared of everyone… but acting like you’re not scared of everyone.”

I love Fey and I think she’s perfect in the role, but is it just me or does Liz Lemon possess a lot of characteristics that feel very Asian American? And let me take that even one step further–at her very core and essence, isn’t Liz Lemon really…an Asian American male?

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: Meet The Parents

Sweet and slightly neurotic “ethnic” guy meets and falls in love with blonde WASP beauty. He accompanies her to meet her equally WASP parents where he finds himself under the suspicious eye of her protective and scary father. Things get worse when ethnic guy initiates a series of missteps, which makes an already tense situation worse. This is the plot of the hit 2000 comedy Meet The Parents starring Ben Stiller as Greg “Gaylord” Focker a.k.a. neurotic ethnic guy (Jewish in this case) and Robert DeNiro as scary dad Jack Byrnes, but it could also describe the various times my white girlfriends took me to meet their folks for the first time. So why not Meet The Parents starring an Asian American dude in the Stiller role? It might look something like this:

Yup, if someone like my fellow Offender Roger Fan had stepped into the part, the story would have still worked with minimal changes to the script. In fact, the basic premise of the “outsider” boyfriend meeting his fiancee’s “all-American” family would be even more strengthened if said boyfriend was really “different” i.e. Asian. But couldn’t that character be any person of color–not necessarily Asian? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t have the same impact if the boyfriend were black or Latino even though they could also represent the “outsider.” Why?

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: Holiday

It’s the story of a high-society family that values wealth and financial success above all else. So when the family’s favored daughter brings her new and “proper” fiancé home to meet everyone, he seems to be the perfect fit. That is until he announces he doesn’t care about making it in the business world and would rather drop out of society and travel the world to “find himself.” Everyone is shocked and outraged except the family’s other daughter—the black sheep who has rejected the materialistic trappings around her and longs for something more fulfilling.

If I told you the plot I just described is from a film about an Asian American family, there’s a good chance you’d believe me. But it’s actually from Holiday, a 1938 screwball comedy classic starring Cary Grant as the newcomer who wants to find himself and Katharine Hepburn as the black sheep daughter who falls in love with Grant a.k.a. her own sister’s fiancé. Adapted from the hit Broadway play by Philip Barry, director George Cukor’s film ranks as one of the best pairings of its two stars who had also starred together earlier that same year in another screwball comedy classic, Bringing Up Baby.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: A Nightmare On Elm Street

nightmare-on-elmAnother entry in my month-long celebration of all things Halloween

In 1984, director/writer Wes Craven released what may be one of the most original horror movies ever made, A Nightmare On Elm Street. The film’s premise was brilliant—a group of teens are stalked and killed in their dreams by a supernatural killer named Freddy Krueger (a star-making turn by Robert Englund). The whole idea that the moment you fall asleep is when the monster will strike was a completely terrifying thought—there’s no other time when we’re more vulnerable and everyone has to sleep eventually so there’s no escape. But where did Craven get the idea for a killer who murders you in your sleep? From reading about the experiences of the newly arrived Hmong immigrants and the mysterious things that were happening to them in America.