By Sheilla Njoto
With the ubiquitous freshly-released movies like Crazy Rich Asians and the Netflix Original, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it seems like the so-called ‘Asian pride’ reemerges in an instant. But not only that—it appears to be a trend to covet being represented in the Hollywood.
A couple of weeks ago, I was representing my country, Indonesia, at an International Relations conference, particularly in the track Art, Media and Culture. I came across a conversation in which we discussed this particular question: “Is it time for Asian superhero?” I have found my answer. But I’m getting ahead of myself—I’ll get to that.
There were other premises on which this question lies. It seemed to be a mental puzzle the first time I heard it. This question did not lead me straight to an answer. In fact, it raised a couple of more other questions.
The subconscious need for us, Asians, to be represented in Hollywood is in itself a fruit of eurocentrism. Yes, we want our image to be represented in the Hollywood, but Hollywood itself—or the context of superhero movies itself is rather a Western culture. So my question is, why do we want to be fit into the Western culture in the first place? Why do we want Asian culture to be boxed into Hollywood culture?
I am not at all against Hollywood. After all, there is a lot of historical facts supporting the massive contribution of Western culture to social development. But that’s not my point.
There is a thousand or a million of Asian movies that have been successful in, not only representing the Asian face, but also representing the Asian culture. I am sure that most of us who are reading this might have heard of Ip Man (it went on to Ip Man 3 and still is going)—a story of a local Wing Chun expert, who, not only was a true superhero, but he also defeated a snobby English boxer who was dishonouring China and putting Chinese people in the lowest pit during the second movie. What more of a superhero do we need?
Let’s take some other examples. Power Rangers, Ultraman, and all those superheroes represented in manga. These are the superheroes that represent the power of community and not at all emphasising on individualism as that of influence by the West. Why don’t we take these into account? Is it only because these movies are produced by Asian film productions?
“Yeah, but these movies aren’t really trending.” they said. Well, I say, who are the trendsetters? Aren’t you guys the trendsetters? Not until we start being proud of our local cultures can we be fully represented. If we don’t even take pride of our own culture, we can’t demand others to.
This reminds me that there has been a ton of critically-acclaimed Asian movies that had gone internationally recognised, like The Raid (2011), Train to Busan (2016), Forgotten (2017). There is also a number of Hollywood movies adopted from anime cultures that have gone popular, such as Dragon Ball: Evolution (2009), Tekken (2009), or Godzilla (2014). Even better—we have also witnessed successful Hollywood movies that are mainly starred by Asians--Rush Hour (1998), The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), or Charlie’s Angels (2000). I have not mentioned the legendary Hollywood movies that portray Asian face and cultures--Life of Pi (2012), Lion (2016) or Slumdog Millionaire (2008). These movies did not only go viral because of the Asian representatives but because they are extremely amazing movies. And they have been there for a long time. So why now? Why did we only start now when Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before came out?
We live in the generation of what I call as the era of ‘feeling victimised’. Everyone thinks that they’re victims but they don’t reflect on how much they contribute in this victimisation. Everyone wants to feel special by saying that “I am a minority.” Well, guess what? Everyone is victim in their own story. But what do you do with it? Do you just stand there and complain about it or feeling sorry for yourself? Everyone wants to a change for themselves or an impact in this world but no one wants to change or shift their perspective to look at the other side of the story.
This leads to another topic, which is the misrepresentation of Asians in Western movies.
“Why are all Asians depicted as smart and academically ambitious? Not all Asians are like that!”, some people say. Well, I agree. Not every Asian is smart or academically ambitious. But when we only perceive an issue from our perspective, we most of the time get some sort of a ‘cultural amnesia’. We seemingly become oblivious towards the history and reality.
In some parts of the world where Asians are considered as minority (which, by population, I don’t think we are anymore at this point), it is true that most of the Asian students I have met are intelligent beyond standards and most of them are ambitious! Most of them also love story-telling to each other about how strict their parents are about their career choices and academic grades.
A friend of mine, in a slightly humourous manner, once expressed a thought that I shared the same experience in, “there are only four career options for us as an Asian: an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or a disgrace of the family.” But anyway, I might have gone off-topic.
Again, I cannot stress this enough, I’m not saying that all of us share the same bring-ups but it is a fact that the majority of them that I have met do. Equivalent to this, it is also a fact that most of the Caucasian people I have befriended and encountered love drinking. Especially those I encounter in Bali (where, for some reasons, I always end up meeting more Caucasians there than here in Melbourne), almost every Caucasian you see there drinks a whole heap of beer! So it is a reality. It doesn’t mean that all Caucasians are obsessed about drinking. As a matter of fact, I do have some Caucasian friends who don’t. But it is understandable to see this characteristic of Caucasian in Asian movies too!
Let me fast forward to the Crazy Rich topic!
I am not at all saying that I am not proud of Crazy Rich Asians. As a matter of fact, I am. I am proud of the diversity that is starting to be promoted extensively. But I am also proud of thousands of successful original Asian movies like Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (2002), that perfectly portrays an innocent Indonesian high school love drama back in the 2000s. I am proud of ridiculously bloodcurdling Thai horror movies, like Shutter (2004), that has successfully represented the mystical culture in most Asian countries, especially the rural areas. In fact, this movie had been remade in Hollywood but it went down the drain.
So… going back to that question: is it time for Asian superhero? I don’t think it’s necessary to add on my direct answer on top of all these. I will leave it open-ended after all these paragraphs of verbose waffles!
We come from different perspectives. We have different pairs of shoes.