For Asian American entertainment, 2020 marks a new beginning — but the beginning of what exactly?, part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in franchise entertainment — and AAPI franchises

While movies and television have been steadily reorienting around multimedia franchises for a long time, this past decade marked a sort of point of no return, in which almost every major Hollywood release belongs to a franchise owned by either Disney or WarnerMedia. This means that, for the most part, the biggest Asian American or Pacific Islander breakthroughs in mainstream entertainment are likely to be related to one of these franchises.

Last year’s “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” one of the better comic book flicks in recent years, was directed by Cathy Yan and features Ella Jay Basco in a leading role. We also learned that TV series centered on Asian American versions of Marvel characters Spider-Man and Captain Marvel are in development. And Kelly Marie Tran is set to star this year in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” as the title character, Disney’s first Southeast Asian animated princess.
Live action adaptations of established anime franchises featuring actors of Asian descent are in the works as well, including Netflix’s upcoming “Cowboy Bebop,” which features John Cho in the lead.

But should we enjoy and celebrate these movies and shows, given that they’re part and parcel of a pernicious shift in entertainment media? Personally, I think it’s fine to do so. It seems both unfair and futile to tell people they should deny themselves any joy they might feel from these properties’ existence. It’s their ubiquity and how they crowd out everything else, not the franchises themselves that are the problem, after all. Boycotting them is fine. And supporting indie media is even better. Putting your money where your values are, as an individual, is a great thing to do and more people should do it. But I’ve become skeptical of that practice as a primary vehicle for change. That is to say, I don’t think the solution is for everyone to stop liking franchise entertainment, and I think it’s especially unhelpful to shame people for wanting to feel included in these massively popular media properties. Instead, it would be great if we could radically weaken intellectual property laws so that multimedia franchises wouldn’t be so lucrative compared to everything else, and strengthen antitrust laws to prevent media companies from growing so powerful in the first place.

While that’s probably not going to happen soon, I’d be surprised if we don’t have some sort of reckoning in the next decade that will either cement the power of these media giants or drastically curtail their power. And besides, that’s not the only thing that could undermine their power. 2020 also offered hints that Hollywood is going to be challenged, both by individual content creators on platforms like TikTok, and potential new entertainment production and consumption behemoths outside the U.S.

The end of Hollywood hegemony
One of the year’s biggest surprises in entertainment was “Parasite” winning best picture at the Oscars, the first non-English language film to ever win that prize. Director Bong Joon-ho, of course, possesses a truly rare combination of unimpeachable technical/formal filmmaking skills and interests in genuinely challenging topics, as well as a desire and the ability to entertain his audience, so his sudden upsurge in popularity felt more like an overdue inevitability than an unexpected upset. Plus, his latest film’s themes of class and inequality resonate in the U.S. at the moment. But its popularity, (illustrated, perhaps even more than its Oscar trophies, by its pervasiveness in memes), is still surprising, and I believe this signals a change in how willing U.S. audiences are to embrace entertainment from outside its borders, especially as the limitations of the U.S fixation on franchises reveals itself.

Of course, K-pop is already on mainstream U.S. radio and anime is ubiquitous. Shows like “Naruto” are among the most popular kids TV today, and every year, many good-to-great films like “Children of the Sea,” “Weathering With You,” “Lu Over the Wall” and “Mirai,” some of which are box office sensations in Japan, are at least available in the U.S. on streaming platforms and in limited theatrical release.

But in the coming years, we could see other Asian countries, particularly China and India, and possibly countries in Southeast Asia, make a much bigger impact. For instance, last year’s “Over the Moon” was a clear example of big budget mainstream fare with franchise ambitions emerging mostly from outside Hollywood, despite deriving much of its talent from the U.S. Directed by Glen Keane, the legendary character animator behind some of the Disney Renaissance’s biggest icons — Ariel, Aladdin and the Beast — the 3D animated family film was produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio. It tells the story of a young girl who goes on a journey to the moon to prove the myth of moon goddess Chang’e is real. Its English language version features an all Asian American/Canadian cast of voice actors, including Cathy Ang, Robert G. Chiu, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Sandra Oh, Margaret Cho, Kimiko Glenn. (And its edited by veteran animator Edie Ichioka, who has herself co-directed an outstanding documentary about film editing, “Murch.”)

Overall, it’s a solid kid’s flick. (Although the film’s brief 2D sequences reminded me that I probably will never be a convert to 3D animation). And while it didn’t perform well at the Chinese box office, the incentives are definitely there to make it worthwhile for other studios to keep trying until they develop a winning formula. Which means, effectively, we can expect a lot of content produced or co-produced in Asia, to bring lots of Asian faces into big, crowd-pleasing films, complicating, if not demolishing issues of media representation as we currently understand them.

Beyond “representation matters” media
Aziz Ansari admits in an old bit to being “psyched” at the time of “Slumdog Millionaire’s” popularity when it was released. He then ponders, “… I have no idea why. I had nothing to do with that movie. It’s just some people that kinda look like me are in this movie that everyone loves, has won Oscars, etc., but I had nothing to do with it, but I’m psyched. And I was like, whoa, are white people just psyched all the time?”

The last several years, we have seen more Asian faces on TV. The bar for identification has been raised so much in my lifetime that I can only compare the feeling of identification and visibility I used to have when literally any Asian person was on TV, to when I recently saw my high school on TikTok. I’m not saying we’ll be as universal as white people on TV in the next decade, but I do think that as we break through more consistently, we’ll be progressively less “psyched,” to the point where representation will be taken for granted.

And this will be a good thing in several ways. Netflix now has a Representation Matters Collection. It’s easy to be cynical about this, so I have to fight my instinct here, and think about what this means for my kids. As cynical as I might be about the economic and political impulses driving some of this change, at the same time, I’m grateful that my kids are growing up in a world where they can not only see people who look like themselves on TV, but also a wide variety of people who don’t look like them.

It will also free Asian American content creators from the burden of seeing their work through this lens. It will be healthy for Asian American media to not constantly be looking itself in the mirror, wondering how it looks to mainstream America or to the Asian American and Pacific Islander audiences that it wants to inspire. I think it will make for better art.

It also removes representation as a bargaining chip that can be used to win over our communities. We can be more selective about what we support. This year’s live-action Disney “Mulan” film is instructive. Anecdotally, it seems like Asian Americans didn’t really embrace it because of the ways its actors and the film production seem to have supported the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Uighurs and repression of the Hong Kong protests. And people weren’t even particularly conflicted, since it’s not the only game in town.

The controversy around that film also illustrates some of the ways our “representation” framework kind of breaks down in the context of a volatile geopolitical environment. If tensions continue to grow between the U.S. and Asian nations, and these issues become more salient to everyday life in America, I think we’ll find ourselves in a strange position of both opposing the actions of those nations when they are unjust, but also not failing to note when realpolitik power considerations and anti-Asian racism are what’s really driving most of the condemnation of those actions. This will be a fine line to walk, with tankie-style apologism for adversarial powers’ human rights abuses on one side and “prove your loyalty” traps on the other.

But there’s one way in which it has the potential to be a really bad thing: the loss of “media representation” as a rallying issue. In a community as ethnically and socioeconomically diverse as ours, negative media portrayals and lack of visibility is a convenient way for us to see that we have common interests. Sadly, solidarity starts and ends there for too many people. Or worse, it serves as a kind of false solidarity that papers over deeper political divides or even intra-community exploitation. But at its best, it acts as a gateway into understanding and taking action on other issues of racism and inequality.

If we don’t have “representation” as an issue to at least get us in the room together, will we find something better to build coalitions with, or will our coalitions simply crumble? And do you, as a reader, even want to ponder this question when you pick up an article that’s ostensibly a pop culture year in review? Regardless of whether or not you do want to, you certainly don’t have to right now.

It’s the New Year, and regardless of what lies in store later down the road, we all deserve to take a break and celebrate that 2020 has come to a close. And regardless of what else the year brought, it definitely delivered some great Asian American and Pacific Islander entertainment that we might actually be able to enjoy now that it’s no longer 2020.

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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