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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Chee

How Asian-American Films & TV Shows Are Breaking Barriers in Hollywood, From Netflix's Beef to Crazy Rich Asians

The past few years have seen a rapid shift towards greater representation and advocacy in regards to diversity in Hollywood. In 2023, the Oscars announced its first Asian female actor to win Best Actress at the iconic Academy Awards, an achievement now held by the talented Michelle Yeoh for her role in Everything Everywhere All At Once


Photo: @crazyrichasians/Instagram

However, throughout history Asian representation in cinema has often been limited and stereotyped; we have now entered a new age where not only are Asian actors taking centre stage, but sometimes in cases dominating the mainstream cinema landscape entirely. It is a progression that is not limited to Asian American blockbusters and what we are now seeing is the acknowledgement of all Asian cinema; Bollywood and Hollywood now share the limelight in many households, Korean cinema, as seen in Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite, Hwang Dong-hyuk's Squid Game, and the rising popularity of K-dramas on platforms like Netflix (increasingly accessible through the genre’s growing collection on international streaming sites). 


This shift towards predominantly - if not exclusively - Asian castings for some award-winning TV shows and movies is reshaping Hollywood. Asian directors and actors have the opportunity to explore incredibly complex, nuanced, and satirical storylines celebrating Asian culture. The impact of these storylines is evident in the numerous nominations and awards received by Asian movies, directors, and actors, solidifying their inclusion and advancement in the cinematic sphere. CSP Times takes a deep dive into the significance of this shift through an exploration of Asian cinema in Hollywood.



How the genre's changed


Asian representation has come a long way in Hollywood, from jarring stereotypical and whitewashed representations like Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to both Dr. No and Miss Taro in the first Bond installment, Dr. No. The legacy of miscasting Asian characters has often gone unnoticed or been forgotten over the years.


Photo: Netflix

The Hollywood sphere was arguably broken through in a positive light with iconic Asian talent like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat. Whilst these prestigious actors are to be celebrated, and their movies long been enjoyed, we have now entered a golden era for Asian representation in Western cinema, and a heightened focus on Asian representation.


It can be said that in the modern day, Hollywood has turned Asian representation on its head, poking at stereotypes as a means to introduce intentional satire. The Hangover, whilst arguably an all-round ridiculous comedy, sees Ken Jeong play Mr. Chow as a satirical representation of his ethnicity. In an interview the actor explains the role as a meta-joke; ‘playing something so hard where usually the Asian is very passive’. 


Arguably, whilst films like The Hangover are made purely for comedic relief, we have entered a new era within cinema; gone are the days of uncomfortable mis-castings. We have progressed beyond making jokes at prejudices for simple comedy, and have instead entered into an age of cinema that exhibits complex Asian storylines. The genre is taking charge, with predominantly Asian casts satirising themselves and creating art that reflects the intricacies of Asian identity.


Here are some of our favourite internationally celebrated Asian movies and TV shows, and their significance…


Photo: @crazyrichasians/Instagram

1) Crazy Rich Asians


The 2018 romantic comedy combining both United States and Singapore aesthetics is a perfect balance of celebrating and sharing in Asian culture, and exuding a life of inaccessible luxury. The film has a star-studded casting, including Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Ken Jeong, Harry Shum Jr. but to name just a few of the successful actors starring in Jon M. Chu’s film. With US$260 million in box office receipts, and an impressive collection of nominations, the film secured an all-round success. 


Why is it an important film though? Well, it was the first major Hollywood movie to star a predominantly, or ultimately exclusively Asian cast in a quarter of a century. However, not only did its casting make a huge impact, but equally, it was the highest grossing romantic-comedy of its decade. The impact of this casting and overall success can only be further augmented by the fact that the plot line follows an incredibly indulgent lifestyle of exclusively Asian characters. The plot line ultimately makes the central characters utterly aspirational and desirable, and even when there are clear indicators of racism - queue the white hotel staff - the movie turns Hollywood stereotypes on its head.


2) Everything Everywhere All At Once


By contrast, the multi-award-winning multiverse adventure, Everything Everywhere All At Once tells the universally understood story of loss and struggle from the perspective of Asian immigrants living out the ‘American dream’. It is a film centred around mundane life, lacking frills and fancies, rendering the movie a complete contrast to a film like Crazy Rich Asians. Yet it is equally as significant, and even more critically acclaimed. The list of nominations and awards is huge, with Everything, Everywhere All At Once walking home with 7 Oscars including Best Picture. 


It is a film that delves into the immigrant Asian American experience, thus making it relatable to so many immigrant communities regardless of race, and ridding the idealism of a film like Crazy Rich Asians. Its obsession with the mundane in a fantastical interpretation - the multiverse - does not, however, draw away from the impressive cast list, as Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Harry Shum Jr. and Jamie Lee Curtis put on stellar performances and rightly achieved an array of nominations and awards.


Photo: Netflix

3) Beef


Not only within Hollywood, Asian representation is becoming increasingly prominent in Asian-American television, with blockbuster, award-winning shows streaming on sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Beef is a recent example of this, but the show intentionally subverts racial stressors offering a refreshing and new dynamic.


The show, whilst casting majority Asian actors, does not focus on the Asian ideals like the movies stated above. Instead, its lack of Asian plot line means we do not focus on race at all. In fact, showrunner Lee Sung Jin disclosed how the character of Amy was not intended to be Asian but instead a middle-aged white man. The intentional step away from race altered his decision to cast a completely different character, Amy, instead. Whilst the Asian characters are a great sight to see on television, it is not the be all and end all of what the show is about; it is an award-winning show which just so happens to star Asian-American characters.


As this trend continues to flourish we will reach a time when this topic will neither be notable nor unusual; but for the time being, it should be rightly celebrated and admired.

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