Photo: Asian Americans Men as Heroes
2021 is already shaping up to be an incredible year for Asian American representation in the film industry. From the characters of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ to Jessie Mei Li’s performance in Netflix’s new show, ‘Shadow and Bone,’ Asian characters are finally getting the chance to shine as heroic, able protagonists. While this success may be hard to fully celebrate given the recent rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans and the #StopAsianHate movement, it still functions as a beacon of hope and a reminder that things are changing, even slowly.
Particularly, Hollywood’s treatment of the Asian American male is beginning to change – a transition that arguably gained traction when ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ put forth an Asian man as its main love interest, allowing Asian men to finally be seen in a romantic way.
Here are some upcoming films that continue to break the stereotype of Asian American men:
The Highly Anticipated ‘Mortal Kombat’
‘Mortal Kombat’ premiered last week to avid fans of the video game franchise and regular moviegoers hoping to partake in a wild cinematic journey. Even for those not entirely versed in the series, anyone and everyone knows it has a reputation for uncensored violence and gore. Needless to say, this was a highly anticipated film that brought in moviegoers around the world – helping theaters get back on their feet too.
While ‘Mortal Kombat’ is an American media franchise created by Midway Games, it is a series with a firm root in Asian culture and aesthetics. Think ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ and how that series takes inspiration from a variety of Asian cultures. And, the movie succeeds in showing its appreciation for these cultures too. In the film, languages such as Japanese and Mandarin are used at times, with English subtitles accompanying them. This decision massaged worries that the movie would “whitewash” the franchise, instead giving these cultures the appreciation and time they deserved. All too often, we are accustomed to films catering to a White audience, which is why this felt particularly special.
The 2021 ‘Mortal Kombat’ film also gained traction when fans learned that an entirely new character would be created for the protagonist role – rather than centering the film around a known, beloved character from the video games. Ultimately, this was revealed to be a character named Cole Wilder, played by Chinese British actor Lewis Tan. As said in the Mortal Kombat Wiki, “Cole was… envisioned akin to a Shujinko-like character arc (an oft-used narrative tool of introducing a “newcomer”), facilitating the role of introducing the story via existing characters, providing the audience a new protagonist experience.”
Centering ‘Mortal Kombat’ around an Asian American man not only paid adequate tribute to the Asian cultures the series takes inspiration from, it gave an Asian American man the chance to helm a popular action story. Cole was allowed to exist as a likeable, cool character essential to the story. From the way he talked and moved, he cemented himself as an exciting new part of the ‘Mortal Kombat’ series – someone fit to lead it. As Tan stated to Backstage, he’s “hoping this will pave a new path for Asian American actors, who are rarely seen as heroes or leads.”
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Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’
Of course, one of the most anticipated movies of 2021 is Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.’ The film is directed by Destin Daniel-Cretton and stars Simu Liu in its titular role – which means the project is being helmed by two powerful Asian men! Along with those two powerful creators, the film is populated with other prominent Asian actors like Awkwafina, Tony Leung, and Michelle Yeoh.
While not much is known about the story, Shang-Chi is already making an impact in pop culture due to its existence as the first film with a titular male Asian superhero. For one, a teaser trailer for the film was recently released, resulting in viral conversation surrounding the upcoming film. In addition, Shang-Chi action figures were also announced, to the joy of Asian American audiences worldwide. Many lamented not having action figures that looked like them as kids, with this new product signifying a new age and era. All in all, ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ will be released in theaters on July 9th and is expected to have a similar reception to Marvel’s ‘Black Panther,’ which gained cultural prominence due to its existence as the first film helmed by a Black superhero.
Seeing an Asian American superhero come to life in the future is incredibly exciting, let alone one existing in a world inspired by Asian culture and populated by other Asian characters (and not in a stereotypical way either). And like Mortal Kombat, Shang-Chi battles Hollywood’s all too familiar relationship with Asian American men, putting them in the center of the narrative that is attractive and highly anticipated.
Rewriting the Role of the Asian American Man
For far too long, Asian American men have been seen in emasculating, lesser roles in Hollywood. Always the nerd, the geek, or the unattractive; never the jock, the heroic, or the romantic interest. Now, they are finally getting their chance to shine in stories built around them. However, these stories have been around for ages, just waiting to be told. Respectively, ‘Mortal Kombat’ was created in 1992 and Shang-Chi debuted in the Marvel comics in 1973.
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We should ask ourselves: why is that? While it’s incredible for these stories to finally see the light of day (and for ‘Mortal Kombat’ to be a film actually based on Asian interests, following their slew of failed films), it’s important to realize this is just the first step. Why do stories centered around heroic Asian men have to be decades-long franchises to finally be worthy of a film adaptation? Can’t we just have normal films with them as our leads?
These are important things to think about when discussing representation in film and media. However, for the time being, we should celebrate the achievements of these two films, as well as the many other Asian-focused films as of recent, for trying to change the game.
By Lana Nguyen
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Lana Nguyen is a writer and filmmaker currently pursuing a BFA in Film Production at USC. Her love for film stems from the belief that empathetic and humanistic stories can help enact cultural change, and is excited to review such releases in film and media. As a young Vietnamese American and Jon M. Chu scholar at USC, she is passionate about diversity and representation in film and hopes to contribute thoughtful and progressive commentary on these issues, aligning with Hollywood Insider’s mission to provide impactful and meaningful content.