On Godzilla, Ken Jeong, and the End of the World

October 29, 2009

It’s not that I care especially about the eroding standards of American filmmaking, or that I don’t think 2012 will be entertaining. I’m not a movie critic, and I don’t have a bone to pick with Emmerich for the fact that most trailers for his film give more face time to collapsing skyscrapers than they do actual people.

It’s that this guy -- you know, Jet Li’s triad-boss father in Romeo Must Die and “Master Yu” in Rush Hour 3 -- is featured as a Tibetan lama crushed by tidal waves flooding the Himalayas. He goes down swinging, literally, at a large Buddhist bell -- the implication being, of course, that he sacrifices himself to warn others of the impending end. It’s selfless work, being more mystically attuned than the rest of us.

Granted, the Tibetan monk -- Asian America’s magical negro -- grates a lot less harshly than unabashed stereotypes like Ken Jeong’s monstrosity of a racist role in The Hangover. I don’t want to rehash all that’s been said, but I do want to say: when I saw The Hangover at a free advance screening at UCSB, I enjoyed the film up until a hysterical naked Asian man leapt out of a car trunk to beat three white men with a tire iron. When he turned out to be an effeminate, lisping gangster stashed in the trunk as a “lucky charm,” I was incredulous -- really? Still?

On one level, it’s important to direct our venom at racist casting, racist writing, and racist roles. It’s sad that Ken Jeong, who probably speaks better English than most Americans, can’t span a three-year stretch of comedic movie roles without playing the racial equivalent of a fart joke. But is it really still off-limits to ask: what obligation do Asian American actors have to not take roles that play to racist stereotypes?

It’s a question that might be fairer to aim at a successful actor like Jeong than at someone like Mark Dacascos, who, when not doing backflips into Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef America, plays villains with names like “Von Griem” and “Cobra.” And it’s a question that might not be fair at all, given the amount of money invested into maintaining our familiar Oriental tropes -- here, I am reminded of a recent Panda Express commercial involving Orange Chicken, chopsticks, and, of course, pandas.

But I still have to wonder: when an Asian actor is asked to feign Buddhist mysticism, or chirp Oriental gibberish and run naked through the desert, can we really only fault the dearth of other roles if he or she accepts? What responsibility do they have to reject those roles -- to say, "This is wrong"?


Winston Chou


Winston Chou is a graduate student in sociology at UCLA. He is especially interested in issues of immigration and second-generation assimilation, but would almost always rather talk about obscure NBA players from the '90s. (Remember Chris Gatling?)



great point. ken jeong always seems to play a kind of an annoying character in general in all his films. D: