By Andrea Plaid
Y’all can thank Racializen Michelle Kirkwood for this week’s Crush: Sung Kang.
The Gainsville, GA-born and -reared Korean-American actor/restaurateur, is best known for his breakout role of Han in Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. He solidified his star bona fides–and fan love–as Han Seoul-Oh in the Justin Lin-directed Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast Five. In fact, Kang said his Fast and Furious franchise role was originally written for an African-American actor:
There originally wasn’t a part for me. Justin convinced me to come in and read for the lead even though he told me I wasn’t going to get it. However it was a chance for me to meet the casting directors. There was a small part which was being developed which originally was going to be for an African-American actor and Justin had the idea of why not make it an Asian-American role.
Since then, Kang has shown his handsome face and blazing acting skills in, among other shows and films, CSI: Miami, War, Live Free Or Die Hard, Ninja Assassin, Bullet To The Head, and Undoing (co-starring last week’s Crush Russell Wong).
When asked in a 2013 interview about the anti-Asian jokes in Bullet To The Head, Kang replied:
Yeah, it’s very, you know, redefining that whole “48 Hrs” dynamic between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. But in the past, any time there was an Asian in a film, let’s say, opposite an African-American, the jokes were always on the Asian guy. Like, “You don’t speak English!” “What do you do, kung fu?”, it’s more making fun of his ethnicity, but he couldn’t return it. But this is more acceptable, because it’s this old-school guy in his 60s, and it’s a guy’s guy kind of thing. He also does dirty work for a living, and his goggles of the world, he sees an Asian guy, he thinks whatever, you’re Chinese. Ching Chong. Vietnamese. Whatever. And I’m this new generation Asian-American that speaks English, that’s overachieving, that’s athletic, that is also three-dimensional, sexual. Women find him attractive. I can stand up for my own. You put these two people together, and it’s water and oil, and you shake it up, and it becomes humorous. It’s really funny.
…and also, you’re dealing with that racial gray area, and [the creative team didn’t know] if I could handle that kind of stuff, and then come back with stuff. Some people are called like, Jap Face, and they start getting angry or call the NAACP, or call SAG, and go “This is inappropriate!” But my belief system is that you laugh at racism, and that’s how it goes away.
Simultaneously, Kang also understands how Hollywood still sees Asian-American men–which is no laughing matter. He offers this fascinating response in another interview with UCLA’s Asia Pacific Arts:
APA: Sung, you mentioned earlier about Asian Americans wanting their own Johnny Depp character, and to me, that means some sort of cool sex icon. In a way, Russell’s been filling in that void for the last 15 years. What do you think it’s going to take for an Asian American man to attain that level?
SK: When I say the Johnny Depp character, I don’t think I mean one type of sexuality, one type of actor, or one type of character. The more films that are made with Asian American actors, the definition of sexuality for an Asian man broadens. I don’t think you need to have long hair and chiseled abs and be brooding and smoke cigarettes to be sexy. I think a student at UCLA can be sexy. A guy who lives in Diamond Bar can be sexy. The representation has been so limited.
I think yeah, Russ has been filling that void. Even with Joy Luck Club –it’s that animalistic sexuality. It’s in-your-face sexuality. But I think that definition needs to broaden a little bit. The more dimensions you put into a character, sexuality eventually comes out. Harrison Ford is a very sexy man. But compared to Johnny Depp, does he hit the 15-16 year old demographic? I don’t think so. But his sexuality is very different, it’s a different definition.
APA: Do you think that for the representation to change, is it more important for certain roles to be geared towards that, or do you think you as an actor have control over that as well?
SK: Well it always starts with the script. That’s the map. You can make a horrible movie out of a good script, but you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script. Opportunities for me as an actor to bring out more in a character starts in the script. “Sexy brooding Asian man stands behind the sushi bar yielding knife.” There’s only so much I can do with that. So they’re going to cast a guy who they think is sexy – maybe have his shirt off with his abs. Is that sexy? No that’s not sexy, that’s ridiculous.
But if it’s a character who’s a grad student at UCLA, who has a Brazillian or Spanish girlfriend, who has issues with making money and has to become gigolo, but he comes from a conservative family and he’s loved by his family but a parent is dying…You know, if the script can allow the actor to use all these elements to bring out a sense of sexuality or different dimensions, then the audience goes, “Wow, the way he played that was very unique, very sexy.” So it’s the story. The more writers we have, the better characters there are, and the more opportunity there is for the actors to create something that hasn’t been seen before.
And according to Kang, it’s the public that is telling Hollywood how it wants to see Asian-American men on-screen:
APA: So what are your thoughts on Memoirs of a Geisha, which a lot of people have complained about, but it does give an opportunity for Asian leads.
SK: You know, I haven’t seen the film, but there’re two ways to look at it. If you’re a starving actor that needs to pay his bills and you have a family to support, and you get that role of the screaming Japanese prostitute, I don’t know. I think looking from the outside, you can say, you’re selling out, you’re not representing Asians in a positive way. But, as an actor you have to work. So if you’re not in the ballfield, if you’re not able to make those connections, you’re not able to pay for the classes to become a better actor, you’re kind of stuck.
In term of the casting, there’s been talk of not casting Japanese actors, but you know, I think a lot of people forget that it’s commerce. As Asian Americans, we’re very sensitive to these things, we’re very aware of it. But for the studios, they don’t care. It’s all about the color green. If you put Zhang Ziyi in the film, it has a worldwide market because everyone knows who she is. She’s the girl from Crouching Tiger and Rush Hour. Maybe we haven’t even see her films but we know it’s going to bring in ticket sales. You put in a Japanese actor that nobody knows, the movie has to sell itself, and it’s all about content which is riskier. So I think if you spoke to me when I was doing Better Luck Tomorrow, I would have been “you can’t do that” and get pissed off. Now, I’m a little older, I’ve worked within the studio system, and I realize, it’s nothing personal. It’s about economics.
And a lot of people point fingers at the actors and say how could you take this role, but Asian Americans need to step back and take a look at themselves. Besides the educated filmgoer, the general public doesn’t care about Asian Americans. They’re not going to go out to buy a ticket because there are Asian American actors or an Asian American director. Paramount showed us this chart: Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics. And we asked them, where’s the yellow part? And they said there is none, because Asians consume like Caucasians. You guys buy, you dress, you read and you’re educated like white people. There’s no demand for it.
I’ve realized that with the younger generation, there is this demand for someone to identify with. So I think there is positive change. But you can talk or argue, and you end up going in circles.
APA: So you’re pretty positive that there will be an Asian American audience that will be identifiable within the next generation or so?
SK: I think it’s happening now. I’m very positive. I was in New York and I realized [there are] these 13 to 16 year old girls and boys. It’s the Fast and the Furious demographic: they want something that’s quick – a popcorn movie, a summer action flick. But they see a character that speaks English, and they can identify with him, because he’s American. It just happens [that he’s] this Korean American guy in Tokyo. They like that. They want to see their faces without the kung fu, without the accent, without the emasculation, without and the asexual characterization; and you realize with these girls, they want their idol – they want their Johnny Depp. And you know they’re going to go to college, they’re going to be educated, and they’re going to be the ones who are buying the tickets. Because it’s not about being Korean American or Chinese or Vietnamese or Japanese. It’s just Americans that happen to be Asian. I think it’s changing. I felt that.