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For Asian American actors, playing a hot mess is liberating

By Matt Stevens, The New York Times

Ashley Park did not tell her mother much about the drugs, the sex or any of the other debauchery in “Joy Ride,” the over-the-top comedy in which she is co-starring.

So perhaps it was understandable when, at South by Southwest, just before the Lionsgate film was set to premiere, Park’s mother approached one of the screenwriters, Teresa Hsiao, with a question: If swear words were removed, would the movie still have to be rated R?

“Teresa was like, ‘Oh, I don’t even know how to explain it,’” Park recalled in an interview.

Moviegoers will be able to decide for themselves, starting Friday. Compared with “The Joy Luck Club” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which the most egregious transgressions involved earning poor grades or simply being middle class, the threesomes and cocaine reveries of “Joy Ride” are eye-popping. Arriving in the months after “Everything Everywhere All at Once” made Oscar history with its best-picture win, “Joy Ride” is one of several film and TV projects to present Asian American characters who are both deeply flawed and fully fleshed out.

The people making and watching the work agree: It’s about time.

In April, Netflix released “Beef,” a series about two rage-filled Asian Americans surreptitiously seeking to destroy each other. Last month, the comedy “Shortcomings” played at the Tribeca Festival and introduced viewers to Ben, a self-hating, mopey, movie theater manager played by Justin H. Min. And the world will be able to join Park and her friends on a business trip to China that goes off the rails in “Joy Ride.”

This image released by Lionsgate shows Stephanie Hsu as Kat, from left, Sherry Cola as Lolo, Ashley Park as Audrey, and Sabrina Wu as Deadeye in a scene from “Joy Ride.” (Ed Araquel/Lionsgate via AP)

Taken together, these productions represent an important moment in the relatively short history of Asian American lives onscreen. For decades after the 1993 drama “The Joy Luck Club” proved a landmark hit, the handful of movies with Asian American casts mostly offered family-centric stories filled with generational hardship, sacrifice and culture clash. But now, in part thanks to the 2018 blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians,” audiences are finally getting to see all dimensions of the Asian American experience — even the weird, bad and raunchy parts.

“Being Asian American is a part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am,” said Randall Park, who is making his directorial debut with “Shortcomings” and sees himself in Ben.

“What I’m conscious of are these other things that make up my human experience — those imperfect things, those everyday things,” he added. “And I feel like to be able to share those stories, that’s what we’re aiming for.”

MARGARET CHO WAS AMONG THE FIRST Asian American women to go onstage and talk openly about race, sexuality and other topics that some had deemed taboo. Ticking off a list of things she didn’t excel at — “I don’t have martial arts skill. I was not a professional skater. I was not a good student” — Cho said in an interview that she was “very much not fitting in with what was Asian American at the time.”

Still, even though she also was not, as she put it, “a ‘Joy Luck Club’ girl,” the success of that film led to a big break both for her and for Asian Americans writ large: a starring role in a TV sitcom centered on a Korean American family. “All-American Girl” debuted on ABC in 1994, though it lasted only 19 episodes.

Jeff Yang, a co-author with Phil Yu and Philip Wang of “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the Nineties to Now,” said “we wanted to tell stories that were somehow meaningful to everybody, and the perception then was that the only way to do that was to water those stories down to make them as generic as possible.”

There would not be another Asian American sitcom for 20 years, when Yang’s son, Hudson, starred with Randall Park on “Fresh Off the Boat.”

The intervening years were a period of “narrative scarcity,” Yu said. There were so few Asian American stories emerging — save occasional indie breakouts like “Better Luck Tomorrow” — that the “initial stabs” had to “be kind of like our best foot forward: putting on our best face, showing them what we can do.”

“There was this underlying feeling of ‘Don’t air out our dirty laundry; don’t let them see us fighting,’” Yu added. “It was like, we’ve got to put out something that’s more palatable, more friendly to everybody.”

Yu, who created the long-running blog Angry Asian Man in 2001, came up with a term for this feeling with his friends. They called it the “rep sweats” — the anxiety they felt any time they watched an Asian American onscreen. It was a pressure emanating from the fact that those appearances were so few and far between.

“Is this going to be embarrassing?” Yu would wonder before any new, highly anticipated movie featuring an Asian face. “Because that was a real possibility.”

YOU COULD SAY that Asian Americans were still nervously dabbing their brows in 2018 when the rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” debuted. It delivered the box office triumph ($238 million worldwide) that many had longed for, proving definitively that a movie with a nearly all-Asian cast could bring in huge audiences and big money.

In interviews with more than a dozen Asian American actors, filmmakers, executives and scholars, many cited the comedy as a milestone that made it easier for more such stories — including “Everything Everywhere” — to get the go-ahead.

But “Crazy Rich” did draw criticism from some Asian Americans. Set mostly in Singapore, the movie leans into the conceit of its title, showing off palatial estates, opulent outfits and a customized cruise ship in a way that detractors said perpetuated old model-minority myths. Others noted that only a handful of South Asians get even brief screen time, appearing as armed guards. Looking back, some lamented that the movie was saddled with an impossible burden: to please everyone.

Park opens “Shortcomings” with a scene in which a movie that looks a whole lot like “Crazy Rich Asians” is showered with raucous applause from a mostly Asian American audience. But Ben finds the movie underwhelming. And although his girlfriend, Miko, insists that the film’s mere existence might make it easier for him to one day make something more to his tastes, he remains grumpy and unmoved.

Park said he was consciously spoofing “Crazy Rich Asians” as a way to update the 2007 Adrian Tomine graphic novel on which “Shortcomings” is based. And he said he believed Miko’s message to be timely and true.

“You need to have something like a ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ to get to something like ‘Beef,’” he said. “I do feel like there is a lineage. And you can connect ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ 20-plus years before to ‘All-American Girl.’”

These days, Park continued, “we can get more specific and still reach a broad audience because it’s not so much about selling a culture. It’s about just being human.”

As the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the nation, Asian Americans reiterate that they are not a monolith. Still, they acknowledge that much of the mainstream conversation remains heavily focused on East Asian stories, even as South Asian film and TV projects are becoming more prevalent and many marginalized groups remain hungry for exposure.

One promising development, creators say, is that the narratives being greenlighted seem to increasingly showcase different slices of the Asian American diaspora that have seldom been seen onscreen. Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever” TV series took viewers to California’s San Fernando Valley to spend time with a modern-day Indian American teenage girl. The film “Yellow Rose” centered on a small-town Texan Filipino American with country music aspirations. Even “Minari,” which chronicled the toils of a Korean immigrant family, offered a rare look at Asian American life in rural Arkansas.

This image released by Lionsgate shows Stephanie Hsu as Kat, from left, Sabrina Wu as Deadeye, Ashley Park as Audrey, and Sherry Cola as Lolo in a scene from “Joy Ride.” (Ed Araquel/Lionsgate via AP)

Now “Beef,” “Shortcomings” and “Joy Ride” have helped further emphasize the not-a-monolith refrain, in part with even greater specificity. If it feels like Asian American stories are suddenly everywhere, all at once, it may be because they actually are.

“In the next few years, we’re going to see a lot more diversity in terms of what we mean by AAPI,” or Asian American and Pacific Islander, said Jeremiah Abraham, a co-producer of “Yellow Rose” who runs a marketing and communications agency specializing in Asian American projects. “There is more talent out there than we are giving access and opportunities to.”

“Beef” chronicles a feud between Amy, an affluent entrepreneur feeling pressure to sell her small business, and Danny, a struggling contractor who cannot seem to catch a break. The series puts anger on full display, but it manifests differently for the two tormentors. Amy, who married into art-world money, must smile through various indignities. Danny, weighed down by the responsibility he feels for his younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino), and his ex-convict cousin, weasels his way into Amy’s home and urinates across her bathroom.

As Amy and Danny’s quests for revenge entangle loved ones, the series also gives viewers a close look at the churchgoing Korean community in Southern California and presents multiple versions of masculinity for its Asian American characters.

Joseph Lee, who plays Amy’s lonely, validation-hungry husband, George, said he saw “vulnerability and insecurity” in his character. Mazino said Paul looks at the toxic masculinity of his brother and cousin and tries to forge a different path.

“There’s no one example that represents all of that,” Lee said.

(“Beef” was itself the target of considerable anger this year when a 2014 podcast episode resurfaced in which David Choe, who plays the cousin, spoke of coercing a masseuse into oral sex. He later said the story was made up. But amid the uproar over the revelations, some viewers, including many Asian Americans, grappled with whether to support the show.)

Actors said working on projects like “Beef” that feature all-Asian casts has allowed race to recede into the background, and for nuanced characters like George and Paul to take the spotlight.

Make no mistake: Asian American-ness is essential to “Beef,” Mazino said, but it is inserted in a way that is “not so in-your-face.” Consider the set design: Everything in his character’s apartment — the carpet, the archery set, the protein powder and the Shin Ramyun — “builds the world and grounds it in a certain culture,” he said.

“One could argue that race is almost invisible because it is so well embedded,” said Bing Chen, who runs the nonprofit Gold House, an Asian American advocacy group that holds the annual Gold Gala, a glossy gathering of actors, artists and entrepreneurs. “I think we’re at the point in the community where people understand that no single piece of art is a panacea for all of us.”

TO THE EXTENT THAT “CRAZY RICH ASIANS” made a resounding business case, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” showed that Asian American stories could also win the highest form of critical acclaim.

Now, new projects are providing a kind of thematic “boldness and outspokenness” that comedian and actress Sherry Cola finds refreshing.

“As a community, especially Asian women, we’re expected to be submissive and not rock the boat,” said Cola, who co-stars in “Joy Ride” and plays one of Ben’s longtime friends in “Shortcomings.” She added, “I actually make it a point to be the loudest person in the room because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m timid.”

Her two films unapologetically call out issues in her community, Cola said. In “Shortcomings,” Ben fumes over the idea of Asian women dating white men, and Miko harangues Ben over his penchant for white women.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hua Hsu wrote in The New Yorker, Ben “is a caricature of a certain kind of insecure Asian male, claiming that he is above race and has no need for community, yet clinging to the emasculating effects of racial victimhood to explain his toxic behavior.”

“JOY RIDE” OPENS with a scene showing Ashley Park’s character, Audrey, and Cola’s character, Lolo, meeting as young girls. A white boy tells them the playground is off-limits, using a racial slur. A young Lolo curses back and punches him in the face.

The rest of the film follows the now-adult friends on their travels as they hide drugs in their private parts, hook up with professional basketball players and film an unintentionally racy K-pop video.

For Park, who, in addition to starring in “Joy Ride” also appears in “Beef,” the excitement about the new stories isn’t so much about retiring tired tropes about Asian Americans.

“I’m not trying to break a stereotype,” she said. “I’m trying to show the truth of what my reality is.”

Cho has a similar goal in mind when she describes herself as a “bad Asian,” explaining: “I’m allowing all of my humanity to be viewed. Better to be ‘bad,’ because then we are allowing people to see us in the totality of our being. We’re actually human. So to be ‘bad’ is to be there.”

And although some say the new projects are cause for celebration, others like Ashley Park cautioned that “we’re still in the round of firsts.” A 2023 study by the Asian American Foundation found that 1 in 4 respondents could not name a single famous Asian American. Randall Park said he was told “no” repeatedly when he first pitched financiers on turning “Shortcomings” into a feature film.

“The powers-that-be are still white people,” he said.

Nonetheless, the actors say they see and feel that something has changed.

Cola remembers briefly popping into a film earlier in her career to say only two words. “Joy Ride” was an altogether different experience.

She and Ashley Park described one evening when they piled into a van to head home after 12 hours of shooting. It struck Cola that every moment they had filmed to that point was “a big deal” — a revelation she shared with her co-star.

Park paused to reflect, then turned to Cola and said: “I guess this is what it feels like to be a lead in your own story.”

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