By Jessica Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Asian boy meets white girl. They fall in love. They endure hardship, but in the end, love prevails. It’s a scene that has played out hundreds of times in Western cinema.
Oh wait. No, it isn’t.
Unless you are watching the upcoming short film by Vietnamese American director, producer, photographer, and actor Long Tran, then it’s a scene you might never have seen in your life.
How is that possible?
The inequity of Hollywood’s treatment of Asians and Asian Americans in film and television is not new. It’s a dilemma that encompasses all ethnic minorities, and it deals with the essence of identity and how identity is perceived from the outside.
What makes a man? What makes a Hollywood leading man? When was the last time you saw an Asian male in that role? Perhaps Jackie Chan or Jet Li jumps to mind. Did the character have a girlfriend? If so, was it “romantic”? Did they kiss? Did they have sex? Also — was she white?
In Long Tran’s upcoming short film, which sets an Asian-man-white-female romance against the backdrop of Japanese American internment in Seattle in 1942, the audience is asked to consider this dilemma. The film is titled “Jap” — the slur adopted by Westerners during WWII — in a deliberate effort to stimulate dialogue on racism and its effects.
Says Long, “I never learned about the internment until college. History in high school was geared towards white people.” Especially in the Pacific Northwest, where many residents were directly affected by the internments, this seems a grievous error. Long received a grant to create this short film, for which he gathered a diverse crew and professional SAG-AFTRA actors. It is the next in a series of works in which Long addresses race and gender in a Western context.
An Arts, Media, and Culture student at the University of Washington (UW) Tacoma, with a concentration in gender studies, Long has experienced blocked opportunities due to ethnicity, which he has channeled into his work. In his short film, “Vast Minority,” for instance, Long’s character, Johnny, auditions for a male romantic lead. The audience understands that the part is assumed to be for a white actor. Johnny auditions well — but doesn’t get the part. Frustrated, the voices of casting agents in his head (“That was really great, but…we’re gonna need you to open up your eyes”), Johnny decides, in a moment that parallels Long’s real life, to regain control. Says Johnny, “I knew I couldn’t rely on these people to start my career…I had to take matters into my own hands.”
This is heavy stuff. And it’s important. The way Hollywood presents life to us is the way we come to know it. If Hollywood never presents us with an Asian male romantic lead courting a white female, then the chances of encountering this scenario in real life become less. Just visit Tinder, where statistically, compared to white men, it is very difficult for Asian men to get dates. What it means to be an Asian man in the United States is a question in people’s minds. “Even Bruce Lee was portrayed as asexual,” says Long. “We have to start with the media.”
Change is possible when we have changemakers like Long. Long’s singular ability is that he observes and empathizes with not just one group of sidelined Americans, but all of them. His award-winning documentary, “Trapped,” dealt with a high school student coming out as transgender. Long says, “I don’t want to be known as an Asian filmmaker.” Contradictory? It isn’t. It’s about the freedom to follow one’s passion — whatever form that takes — and not be pigeon-holed. Long recognizes his indebtedness to his past and to his family’s connection to the Vietnam War.
“I wouldn’t be here without that.” While he hopes to one day tackle his own story more profoundly, his goal now is to be a pathfinder for others who face similar issues of race, gender, and identity — and who do not see these issues reflected on the screen.
If he wins, we won’t even notice. We will see “directors” on the set, and “actors” on the screen, not “Asian American directors” or “Asian American actors.” And in real life, we will see people.
For now, though, warriors like Long need all the support the rest of us can give. If you wish to follow Long’s activities, you can find him on Instagram at “longwasabi,” or check out his videos on YouTube. Look for his next projects under his company, This is a Long Film.
Jessica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.