There are No Asian American Movie Stars

Last week, North Korean hackers allegedly broke into the personal files of Sony Pictures execs as retaliation for the studio producing the James Franco and Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, which is about a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. Normally, we’d be all over the nerd-friendly news about, say, Spider-Man coming home to Marvel Studios, but that’s been covered plenty of times on the web. Besides, we already told the world the best way to mashup Spidey and the MCU.

The thing to emerge out of the Sony leak that really bugged me was the assertion by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin that “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”

Sorkin with Olivia Munn, who is definitely not an Asian American movie star.

The context of Sorkin’s statement was in regards to a heated exchange between the writer and the studio over developing an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys. The book is about corruption on Wall Street and is centered around the exploits of Bradley Katsuyama, the financial services exec who tries to counter the rise of high-frequency trading by founding his own investors exchange.

In an email to Sony Pictures CEO Amy Pascal, Sorkin laments the fact that writing a script from Lewis’ book would present several problems, one of which is that the protagonist of the flick would be, god forbid, Asian American1. (This despite the fact that the last time a non-fiction book about Asian Americans was turned into a movie, they made it about white folk instead).

But it got me thinking. Is Sorkin right? Are there no Asian American movie stars? And what makes someone a movie star anyway? After about five minutes of research on the internet, I came up with the following, ranked by their lifetime domestic box office gross according to Box Office Mojo.

Keanu Reeves

Lifetime box office gross: $1.9 billion ($2.9 billion when adjusted for inflation)

People love to hate on Keanu. I am not one of those people. Sure his acting can be wooden, and he’s done some questionable roles in the past because he “passes” as white, but two things are undeniable. He’s still Asian American — being of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent — and he is, by all quantitative and qualitative accounts, a movie star. Say what you will about his acting or his down-ness, but his record is proof that Sorkin’s assertion about Asian American movie stars is fundamentally untrue.

To me, it’s actually surprising that more Asian Americans don’t “claim” Keanu as one of our own. (I wonder if this makes him sad?) Is it because he’s never explicitly “played Asian” in his movies (Little Buddha and 47 Ronin, notwithstanding)? Personally, I always just assumed any character Reeves portrays — from Theodore Logan to Johnny Utah to Neo — was hapa unless told otherwise, anyway.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Lifetime box office gross: $1.6 billion ($1.8 billion when adjusted for inflation)

If we broaden out to the larger AAPI community, one of the most bankable stars in the world is Dwayne Johnson. There is actually scientific evidence that if you add The Rock to your movie, he will breathe new life into your stale ass franchise. Just look at what he did for G.I. Joe and Fast and the Furious. Not to mention the fact that his is the only upcoming DC movie I have any hope for. (If only they had cast Jason Momoa as Captain Marvel, though).

Now, granted, The Rock — who’s mother is Samoan — probably isn’t the number one choice to play a Wall Street exec who specializes in high frequency trading, but that wasn’t necessarily Sorkin’s problem, was it? If you believe an Asian American or Pacific Islander can’t top line a successful movie, then you must also believe that none of The Rock’s movies have been successful. Maybe Aaron Sorkin should just know his role and shut his mouth.

If ya smell what The Rock is cookin’.

Lucy Liu

Lifetime box office gross: $895 million ($1.1 billion when adjusted for inflation)

Next on the list is the first Asian American woman with the box office clout to be considered an A-list movie star. Like Keanu, Liu has had a complicated relationship with the Asian American community. Also like Keanu, a lot of that has to do with the types of roles Liu has played on the big screen. From Kill Bill to The Man with the Iron Fists, she hasn’t shied away from problematic Asian female stereotypes. At the same time, though, she is one of the most visible Asian American stars on any screen. For what it’s worth, what she’s doing as Watson on CBS’ Sherlock Holmes reimagining Elementary is some of the most nuanced work she’s done in years.

And if you need further proof that Lucy Liu is a pop cultural phenomenon, her name’s been immortalized in songs by both Outkast and Beyoncé!

Honorable Mentions: John Cho and Sung Kang
The stars of Better Luck Tomorrow

Lifetime box office gross: $1.6 billion (Cho)
Lifetime box office gross
$774 million (Kang)

Back in 2003, a little film called Better Luck Tomorrow rocketed a bunch of Asian Americans into the top tier of blockbuster filmmaking. Along with star Parry Shen and director Justin Lin, John Cho and Sung Kang became household names in households that weren’t Asian American. Kang and Lin have been able to parlay their success into steering the Fast and Furious franchise into billion-dollar territory — something unfathomable after the first few films in the series. Meanwhile, Cho top-lined the cult-favorite Harold and Kumar trilogy with Kal Penn, making them the Asian American Cheech and Chong for the 21st century, and is a major player in his own billion-dollar movies, the rebooted Star Trek franchise.

But what do I know? If Aaron Sorkin says there are no Asian movie stars, then there are no Asian movie stars. Or maybe, to paraphrase Chris Rock, Hollywood is just a racist white industry.

You guys decide while I go pop in my Fast Five blu-ray and call it a day.

  1. Just so we’re clear, Bradley Katsuyama is actually Canadian, but the point remains that casting of the movie would require hiring an actor who’d likely be Asian American. Also, it has been pointed out that Sorkin said there were no Asian — not Asian American — movie stars, but I’m pretty sure the context is about the lack of Asian Americans. Because saying there are no movie stars in Asia is an even more ignorant assertion.  

98 thoughts on “There are No Asian American Movie Stars

  1. WTF? Checked out a lot of chinese movies lately. There’s never a white guy in it. Fuckin chinese racists! 😉

    1. There’s no history of whites establishing in China other than some christian missionaries. There’s a history of asians in the U.S. building the railroads. Asians are a huge population in the U.S. and are a huge influence in technology and medicine (1 out of 5 medical doctors are asian). Also, even though white people aren’t represented in China, white actors are still desirable and considered bankable. Flowers of War movie got criticisms for not representing a leading asian (the leading role went to Christian Bale instead) even though that movie was a Chinese production film. American and European white people are very well desirable in Asia. Look at anime, cosmetic surgery, there are chemicals in India to lighten their skin etc etc.

      1. Just got back from an awesome trip to China. Beautiful mountains… Most of the posters I saw in cities had white people featured (ads, etc.) My host said foreigners are regarded as a positive in terms of image. Just thought that was interesting, like a xenophile approach.

    2. This is a dumb (a word i never use)and dismissive joke that just leads to real calls for white affirmative action. Plus it simply isn’t true and in the US, the self-proclaimed melting pot, every non-whitw race is marginalised and underrepresented.

  2. Why not call for an audition for those Asian-American roles or ask them to send in an audition tape (Like they did with Superman Returns). Keanu Reeves and The Rock are not considered asian-american because they’ve never said they are one. And you obviously skipped Maggie Q. But then again we, Asian-Americans, don’t really care if there are any in Hollywood because we have many better Asian movies where we can see shit load of Asian actors and actress. And I guess that’s one of the reasons there are a lot less Asian Actors in Hollywood. Besides we know that most Asian-American families don’t want their sons or daughters to be in a filming industry. Kenneth Choi said he had to run away from home to become an Actor because his parent won’t allow it. So there you go.

  3. I’m Asian-American, and I find this article a bit stupid- quite frankly.

    Whether or not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Keanu Reeves is Asian/part-Asian is irrelevant as they don’t have Asian phenotypes.

    The question is– will white audiences tune into a film with an actor who not only of Asian ancestry but also “looks” Asian (i.e John Cho, Ken Watanabe)? White people can “get down” with Keanu Reeves because he looks white. And with regard to The Rock, dude’s Polynesian. Is that even Asian?

    So, Sorkin is right. There are no “Asian” movie stars. Hopefully, an Asian actor can establish himself as a star in the near future.

  4. The Rock and Keanu Reeves are cop-outs for the fact that neither actually look Asian. The others are well-known actors, but not Movie Stars. Sorkin is completely right. There are no asian movie stars. And it’s because asian actors are marginalized and the industry does everything to avoid casting them going as far as race-bending the character.

    But trying to make a case that there are Asian movie stars is almost, in a way, like a studio honcho trying to defend the film industry as not being all white. This argument is not what you should be making. The argument should be that Sorkin is right because outright and institutional racism is rife in the film industry.

  5. Nice attempt but no go! Keanu Reeves and Dwayne Johnson aren’t considered Asian by Asian people. They don’t even have Asian last names. Lucy Liu is Asian and WAS at one point on the rise but she’s too old now and not really a movie star anymore. John Cho and Sung Kang have been a part of big Hollywood movies but are not the only lead actors. Average American don’t know who they are. So no there aren’t any Asian or Asian American movie stars in Hollywood. And that’s unfortunate and sad. Most of the Asian roles are small and side characters.

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