Entertainment Re-Oriented: YEAR IN REVIEW: Asian Americans make groundbreaking, bankable achievements

It feels a little strange to state this, but I think 2013 was a good year for Asian and Asian American entertainment. It feels like there weren’t huge battles being fought and won (or lost), but rather, things are moving slowly and steadily in a positive direction, without a whole lot of incident. Network TV has an increasing number of Asian faces in prominent roles. Aziz Ansari is still a crucial part of “Parks and Recreation,” (a very good show, although I really miss the MTV sketch comedy “Human Giant”). Ming-Na Wen is part of the primary cast of the much-hyped “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Mindy Kaling has her own show, which is, in itself, kind of groundbreaking, though it seems that the content of the show is nothing to celebrate. “Hawaii Fivw-0” has drawn criticism for its lack of positive images of Asian American Pacific Islanders, but its recent episode of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was well received by the AAPI community. And while there’s plenty of subtle racism on TV with AAPI characters, the out-and-out racism is getting the criticism it deserves from mainstream critics, not just the AAPI community. (“Dads” and “2 Broke Girls”are two such examples). In film, things are moving along faster, at least in the director’s chair. Not long ago, an Asian or Asian American director achieving any success at the box office caught my attention. Just this year, Malaysian Australian director James Wan’s gore-free horror film “The Conjuring” was a huge critical and commercial success. (Personally, I found the film solid and scary, and appreciated that Wan gave a substantial and non-stereotypical part to API actor Shannon Kook).

‘FAST AND FURIOUS’ — This series of films about driving cars fast and furiously managed to become Universal Studios’ biggest franchise ever, without a whole lot of white actors. courtesy of Universal Studios

‘FAST AND FURIOUS’ — This series of films about driving cars fast and furiously managed to become Universal Studios’ biggest franchise ever, without a whole lot of white actors. courtesy of Universal Studios

But the big AAPI success story in Hollywood this year is probably Justin Lin, whose “Fast and Furious 6” was the third highest grossing film of the year, globally, according to Box Office Mojo. When Lin directed “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” in 2006, he was in a pattern of alternating between big budget but relatively undistinguished Hollywood projects and Asian American indies. But when I read the box office news, I was made aware that he has now made four (!) “Fast and Furious” films in the last six or so years. This means he’s responsible for two-thirds of the six films in the series, which, according to the Hollywood Reporter, have earned more than $2.3 billion globally, making “Fast and Furious” the biggest franchise in Universal Studio’s 101-year history. (You can take a minute to let that sink in). Upon learning this, I decided I needed to get a feel for what was going on here, so I rented the latest two films in the franchise. The “Fast and Furious” films are a throwback to the action flicks I grew up on as an ‘80s baby, the ones populated by muscled capital “A” Alpha males, who go around demolishing people and property, and somehow come off looking like heroes, largely because they end up in conflicts with people who are even bigger jerks than they themselves are. (This kind of action film disappeared for a good decade, largely replaced by superhero and fantasy franchises and the occasional action thriller with an everyman-who-rises-to-the-occasion protagonist). As such, these movies make no sense, story-wise. “Fast Five” starts out as, I think, a “prisoner on the run” kind of movie, and then it inexplicably becomes a heist film halfway through. The main characters “assemble a team” of people, each with a stated unique talent to pull of a heist. You’d assume that, at this point, they would craft a complicated plan that uses these unique talents, and then they would let the viewer watch in suspense as the plan unfolds/hits snags/ultimately succeeds. In “Fast Five,” however, after they have assembled the team, they hatch a plan that uses exactly one person’s stated unique talent (being good with computers), and uses everyone else’s talent for driving really fast (this plan, in case you’re wondering, is to hook a giant bank vault to a car and then drag it through the streets of Rio; that’s really pretty much it). However, while “Fast Five” fails at heist-movie, it succeeds at car-chase-through-Rio-that-destroys-half-the-city. The climactic sequence is amazingly visually coherent, utterly physically impossible and undeniably enjoyable. Seriously, it’s pretty great. “Fast and Furious 6” similarly, makes no sense. I can’t even remember plot, let alone try to explain it. Yet, the film renders logic irrelevant with action scenes that are so over-the-top crazy/silly/good that they’re worth the price of admission. Lin’s really got action sequences down to a science by now. And there is also something gratifying about how diverse these films are. Pretty much the entire good guy team (and many of the bad guys) are people of color. Sure, the Caucasian actor Paul Walker’s character was nominally the protagonist, but the late Walker was just a part of the ensemble, and the characters played by mixed race actors Vin Diesel and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson are the real show stealers. The supporting cast for “Fast Five” and “6” includes black entertainers Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, and Korean American Sung Kang (who has been in numerous Lin movies). And, aside from the insane set-pieces, they’re probably the best thing about these movies. They have great chemistry together. When their team of good guys aren’t mired in unintentionally (?) hilarious melodrama, they seem like they’re having fun together, and watching that is, itself, fun. (Although as much as these films wink at the audience, they take their macho B.S. too seriously for me to endorse them wholeheartedly). Seeing the screen filled, for the most part, by a diverse cast of non-white people is still rare, so it’s hard not to notice. And I think that may be one of the secrets of this franchise’s success. I’m sure that Lin pushed for a diverse cast and helped make their roles substantial instead of throwaway. But I’m also sure that the numbers are why the studio keeps letting him do it. The U.S. is increasingly diverse and there is plenty of non-white male audience money to chase domestically. Abroad, it’s even more pronounced, as courting the international market­ — particularly in Brazil, Russia, India and China — becomes more important for the U.S. In short, economics are fast changing who Hollywood films have to cater to. And at the same time, Hollywood itself is increasingly losing relevance. As a nearly lifelong resident of the Bay Area, I’ve had decent access to indie and international API media for decades. But today, the Internet has made the amount of content available vastly greater, and it can be accessed from just about anywhere. Richard Wong’s hilariously raunchy “Yes, We’re Open,” is available for rent and download on iTunes. And Tanuj Chopra’s “Nice Girls Crew” Web series, another great AAPI comedy, is available on YouTube. H.P. Mendoza’s crowd-funded “I Am A Ghost” — which is about the most original, memorable, and scary horror movie I’ve seen in years — isn’t available as a digital stream, download or rental yet, but you can bring it to a theater near you (which is really where you should see it anyways), through Tugg.com. This is really the stuff I go in for anyways, and it’s more accessible now than it’s ever been. Similarly, content from Asia is readily available on the Web. Streaming service Crunchyroll.com has lots of solid anime. “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day” is a series about high school students who were, in elementary school, a tight-knit group that broke apart when one of them died tragically. The protagonist, a shut-in named Jin, starts receiving visitations from the ghost of their old friend and gathers the group back together so that they might confront their past and help their dead friend find her way to the next world. While it treats the subject matter respectfully, and has abundant tear-jerking moments, it’s a refreshingly light viewing experience overall. “Anohana” has enough humor and forward plot-momentum to keep it from being weighed down by the central tragedy that lies at its heart. And while I was initially off-put by the cutesy character design of

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