Entertainment Re-Oriented: From scarcity to abundance: APIs on screen through the decade

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I have a memory from approximately three decades ago — when I was in elementary school — that’s surprisingly vivid still today. I was sitting in front of the TV and something came on the screen that prompted me to call to my brother, who was in the kitchen, to hurry back and look. “Chris,” I called. “There’s an Asian guy on TV.”

It was a cereal commercial. (The man in it, from my memory, looks a lot like Clyde Kusatsu). But it was a big enough deal that I thought my brother would feel left out if he didn’t see it, too. Fast forward to today, as I’m trying to do a round-up of the Asian Pacific Island American media that has come out this year, and that feeling of scarcity has been replaced by one of abundance. The list of things I watched, read and listened to that I enjoyed this year only seems short when I compare it to the list of things I wanted to watch, read and listen to, but didn’t get a chance to.

Inevitably, this means I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed out. And this feeling is only compounded when I think about the fact that the end of 2019 marks the closing not only of a year, but of a decade. And reflecting on the last 10 years means thinking both about all the API works I saw, but also those I missed out on.

With that decade timeframe in mind, it makes me think not just about what came out this year, but what came out this year that felt distinct from the rest of the decade. The year 2019, perhaps, wasn’t as big a year for APIs in entertainment as 2018. There was nothing that was quite as big a phenomena as “Crazy Rich Asians,” but on a more personal level, this felt like a landmark year for me, in terms of feeling a deeper sense of resonance with the stories I saw on the screen, a feeling of familiarity that goes beyond seeing someone who looks like you or your family. Asian America is, of course, incredibly diverse. And while the tiger parents and doctors and restaurant owners you sometimes see on TV were people I encountered, in the Asian America I grew up in, they were vastly outnumbered by activists and artists, stoners and slackers, gangsters and recent refugees living on government assistance. And I’m sure this is the same for a lot of Japanese Americans. This is the first year I feel like I’ve seen a critical mass of media that tells some of these stories. Top of the list is probably “Always Be My Maybe,” a rom-com set in San Francisco written by Ali Wong, Randall Park and Michael Golamco, directed by Nahnatchka Khan and starring Wong and Park. Wong is my age and also grew up in the Bay Area. From the opening musical cue — “93 ‘til Infinity” by local rap crew Souls of Mischief, which includes a Nikkei member in Tajai Massey — I felt that rush of familiarity and identification. And it didn’t let up. Park’s slacker musician character, Marcus, felt incredibly familiar, as did his band “Hello Peril,” which includes Lyrics Born and Charlyne Yi (Dan the Automator co-wrote the songs they perform!). Plus, it features Keanu Reeves in a role that feels — more on a meta level than in the story of the film — like one of the first real acknowledgments that he’s Asian American.
Similarly, “The Good Place,” which is in my estimation easily the best sitcom on air right now, occasionally features a group of Asian guys played by Manny Jacinto, Mitch Narito, and improv extraordinaire Eugene Cordero, who are, in a lot of ways, basically who I hung out with in high school. (Jacinto is a part of the regular cast that also features Jameela Jamil).

And then there’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.” Minhaj is a dude from Davis, Calif. He is the same age as my brother, with the same politics and taste in music, who also came of age watching “The Daily Show” and is now carrying that baton. (His show is a weekly politically-themed comedy talk show that “airs” on Netflix). And what’s notable to me, and feels different than what I would have expected from an Asian American talk show host in previous years, is the degree to which he really vocally identifies as a member of the Asian American community and brings that to the material. Check out the recent episode “Don’t Ignore The Asian Vote in 2020” for an example.

The year 2019 was also a breakthrough year for my current favorite filmmaker, Bong Joon-ho, whose “Parasite” is his most critically acclaimed work yet. If you’re not familiar with his filmography, you should immediately drop whatever you are doing and go check out every single one of his films and also every video essay about his films by “Every Frame a Painting” (Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou) on YouTube.

And this year also saw “The Terror: Infamy” (written about in Nichi Bei Weekly in the Aug. 29, 2019 issue). While it was wildly uneven and didn’t live up to my highest hopes, it also had great streaks of brilliance and was absolutely a landmark in its explicit exploration of Asian American historical trauma through the horror genre.

But given the fact that this is not only the end of a year, but a decade as well, it’s worth reflecting, even briefly, on what characterized this decade in API entertainment. Probably first and foremost, it saw the rise and fall of two mainstream Asian American network sitcoms in “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken.”

But to my mind, the bigger and more complicated story is still the ascent of API content on streaming platforms. That’s where we’re getting smaller more experimental projects, as well as mainstream content from Asia. And digital distribution and fundraising is continuing to play a major part in making indie work viable. Kogonada built an online following for video essays and was able to turn that into a filmmaking career, directing one of the best API works of the decade with the John Cho-starring “Columbus.” H.P. Mendoza’s “I Am a Ghost,” which is one of my favorite horror films of the decade, was made with a budget of $10K raised almost exclusively on Kickstarter. His follow-up, the sublime black comedy, “Bitter Melon,” got at least a quarter of its $200K budget through online fundraising. And I feel like there’s a whole world of indie content I have only begun to scratch the surface of. I recently saw a clip of “Afro Samurai Champloo,” a fan-made live action mash-up of two seminal anime series. It features spectacular action sequences, as well as new music by the legendary Shing02.

Which brings us to another story of the last decade, the ascendance of fan culture and remix culture, and in particular the prominence of anime within that. Hip-hop, in its various pop, EDM and R&B-inflected varieties, is clearly the dominant genre of the decade. And aesthetics influenced by anime are omnipresent in its videos and album art. This was already an established trend in 2010; Kanye West and Pharrell Williams were big boosters of BAPE and Takashi Murakami. And there are roots that extend even further back. But it seems like today, every other rap album cover takes inspiration from anime.

Sometimes, I think about what it would be like to try to explain Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” video to someone from 2010. “So, this queer guy from Atlanta who is a popular social media influencer known for his 20-second comedy videos, bought an instrumental from a Dutch guy who flipped a country song into a hip-hop beat. The guy recorded over the beat and then became a millionaire by distributing it on this Chinese video collaboration platform, and then he made a music video for it in which he and Keanu Reeves and Billy Ray Cyrus reenact the concept from this meme that is inspired by Naruto and Area 51 conspiracy theories. Oh, and also, he did a remix with BTS, the K-pop boy band that is currently topping the charts in the U.S. and internationally.”

This has also been the decade where it has become clear that, in terms of movies that make box office bank, there’s probably no going back from an almost exclusive focus on franchise movies. This can be attributed, in part, to Justin Lin. In 2010, Lin had seemed to be alternating passion projects and mainstream blockbusters. That he would lean so heavily into the latter should have maybe been more apparent to me in 2011, since he had already done two “Fast & Furious” movies. But it’s still incredible that he was largely responsible for turning a series of movies about guys (and a couple of women) who drive cars real fast into a franchise to rival any of the comic book or fantasy cinematic series out there that is still going strong today.

Which brings us to looking out to the next year and beyond.

It’s been announced that we’re getting our own Marvel movie, in the form of “Shang Chi” starring Simu Liu and Tony Leung. (For what it’s worth, I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a tremendous achievement, with a few good to great films within it, as well as an incredibly troubling sign of where cinema is going). I’m really curious how it will be received by the API community and what that will say about us. Leung is set to play the villain in the film, so it looks like we’re getting an Asian American protagonist and an Asian antagonist. This could be really thoughtful. Part of what made “Black Panther” compelling is its exploration of issues of diaspora. But I can’t help but wonder if this will end up being really divisive.

Partly, I think the relative availability of Asian American media is already creating less of a sense that anything more than a cereal commercial is a cause célèbre. But also, because I feel like we’re in the middle of a larger political realignment in this country, where different coalitions are shifting, forming and reforming.

Within the Asian American community, some of where it seems this is playing out is through class politics, gender politics, geopolitics, and coalition-based/intersectional politics. The diaspora issue could be thorny for “Shang-Chi” depending on what it chooses to highlight. There’s always a balancing act to play between showing solidarity with oppressed people in East Asia and centering their human rights, and also thinking critically about why and where our media and politicians highlight said human rights issues. The gender and sexuality/sexual desirable discourse around the film might also prove divisive. (Not to get too down that tangent, but the issue of racial “preference” in romantic desire has been hot button. I think the most thoughtful analysis I’ve seen thus far is from philosophy academic Amia Srinivasan, incidentally).

Or, it might that I’m overestimating how much any of this matters to the average API American. I spend a fair amount of time lurking on social media, primarily Twitter, and Tumblr when it was more active, and sometimes (shudders) Reddit, just as a way of getting the pulse of community discourse, and online conversations are, of course, not representative. It does, though, sometimes feel like staring at the sidewalk and upon looking closely, realizing that, within and across the neat grid of concrete slabs, there are cracks rippling all over the place.

And it does seem like, beyond the Asian American community, there is certainly a political realignment taking place. A decade that began with Occupy Wall Street fizzling out is now ending with a right wing faux populist as president. History, of course, did not “end” as one notorious Nikkei, Francis Fukuyama, anticipated it would and as a neoliberal focus on the individual has not proven sufficient to offer security to the collective, or the planet, it looks like we’re primed for a radical renegotiation of what our obligations to one another are. In this way, “The Farewell,” one of the best films of the year, feels like a particularly appropriate capper to the decade. The questions it raises, about what our responsibility is to one another, what are the trade-offs to being part of a collective, is something we’re all going to have to answer, as API Americans, and as just plain Americans, as well.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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