Asians in Movie ‘Up’ and Others

May 28, 2009

As posted in © Arthur Hu, Asian Week

Pixar is Moving Up


I love Pixar, but they must have finally noticed my annual complaints in all its diversity, they have never before cast any Asian characters. In Cars, they cast Cheech, but passed over hippie Tommy Chong. Ratatouille’s Collette looked Asian, but wasn’t cast that way. While a couple of mainstream papers such as USA Today noticed, you’d think Pixar was trying to keep it a secret when most review didn’t notice that Wilderness Explorer Russell who keeps the grumpy old man company in his flying house is as Asian American kid.  Though his accent is American, he’s got those almond eyes and straight black hair. Jordan Nagai is a Japanese American, which would make him a sansei plus a couple of generations. Hollywood has given us cute Asian child sidekicks before. Future Hawaii first lady Vicky Tiu was teamed with Elvis in It Happened At The World’s Fair in 1962, while Jonathan Ke Quan clung to Indian Jones as Short Round in the Temple of Doom. On the Pixar Blog, one commenter mentioned that person from Pixar told him they were looking for an Asian child, though 400 kids showed up for the auditions. At seven, Jordan got the part after he was spotted as that kid who would not stop talking. While it’s certainly not necessary to cast an overachieving scout as an Asian, it’s nice when it is so common to cast non-Asians to speak Asian parts.

Geek Chic

When Jordan grows up, will he play another cool geek? Grant Imahara of Mythbusters, and Masi Oka from Heros and Get Smart are both pretty popular now. Even in the new Fast & Furious, gopher Agent Sophie Trinh in a modest pantsuit by Liza Lapria got more screen time than any number of women shaking their booties and Asian guy heroes/villains.



I loved ADAM 12, so NBC’s Southland looks interesting. But how can they get away with zero Asian parts when there are more Asians than African Americans in Los Angeles? Asians could have been cast as the detective, the honor student shooting victim, the gang bangers, the pedophile murderer, the bus driver, or the scared witnesses. How about drawing from some real history with Korean grocers shooting at kids, committing home invasions against other Asians, or even angry geeks who shoot up immigration classes or colleges?

Gran Torino

Maybe it’s not surprising that a movie starring Clint Eastwood was snubbed at the Academy Awards when it was about Asian gangs and racist Walter Kowalski who will point an M-1 rifle in your face and tell how he stacked dead Koreans like sandbags. Sue Lor (played by Ahney Her) tells adopted uncle Walter “Hmong are a people, not a place”, and “we send our girls to college, our boys to jail” But as an Asian, I see a reverse Kung Fu Kid story. To his Hmong neighbors, Walter represents the exotic culture of white guys who can fix anything with a slip wrench, WD-40 and duct tape. He demonstrates how to properly use ethnic insults as an informal communications style. He “mans up” his young Jedi apprentice Thao played by Bee Vang to ask out the girl and stand up to gangs.  The Hmong witch doctor can see right through him while his own young Catholic priest is a joke. In the end, Wally sacrifices himself in a Christ-like pose to save his newly adopted Hmong extended family who treat him as a savior, though he is spurned by his own spoiled children. The boy carries on Walter’s legacy by driving the prized 1972 Gran Torino and Walter’s dog as he drives off past lakeshore. If you can step past political correctness, it’s a tribute to the movie’s quality that it is still playing in some theaters, but watch out for the DVD this summer.